The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Josef Stalin
1879 - 1953

The Soviet statesman Joseph Stalin was the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union and the leader of world communism for almost 30 years.


Under Josef Stalin the Soviet Union greatly enlarged its territory, won a war of unprecedented destructiveness, and transformed itself from a relatively backward country into the second most important industrial nation in the world. For these achievements the Soviet people and the international Communist movement paid a price that many of Stalin's critics consider excessive. The price included the loss of millions of lives; massive material and spiritual deprivation; political repression; an untold waste of resources; and the erection of an inflexible authoritarian system of rule thought by some historians to be one of the most offensive in recent history and one that many Communists consider a hindrance to further progress in the Soviet Union itself.

Formative Years

Stalin was born losif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on Dec. 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. His mother, Ekaterina, a pious and illiterate peasant woman, sent her teen-age son to the theological seminary in Tpilisi (Tiflis), where Stalin prepared for the ministry. Shortly before his graduation, however, he was expelled in 1899 for spreading subversive views.

Stalin then joined the underground revolutionary Marxist movement in Tpilisi. 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 subsequently banished to Siberia. Stalin escaped from Siberia in 1904 and rejoined the Marxist underground in Tpilisi. When the Russian Marxist movement split into two factions, Stalin identified himself with the Bolsheviks.

During the time of the 1904-1905 revolution, Stalin made a name as the organizer of daring bank robberies and raids on money transports, an activity that V. I. Lenin considered important in view of the party's need for funds, although many other Marxists considered this type of highway robbery unworthy of a revolutionary socialist.

Stalin participated in congresses of the Russian Social Democratic Workers party at Tampere, London, and Stockholm in 1905 and 1906, meeting Lenin for the first time at these congresses. In 1912 Stalin spent some time with Lenin and his wife in Crakow and then went to Vienna to study the Marxist literature concerning the nationality problem. This study trip resulted in a book, Marxism and the National Question. In the same year Lenin co-opted Stalin into the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party.

Stalin's trips abroad during these years were short episodes in his life. He spent the major portion of the years from 1905 to 1912 in organizational work for the movement, mainly in the city of Baku. The secret police arrested him several times, and several times he escaped. Eventually, after his return from Vienna, the police caught him again, and he was exiled to the faraway village of Turukhansk beyond the Arctic Circle. He remained here until the fall of czarism. He adopted the name Stalin ("man of steel") about 1913.

First Years of Soviet Rule

After the fall of czarism, Stalin made his way at once to Petrograd, where until the arrival of Lenin from Switzerland he was the senior Bolshevik and the editor of Pravda, the party organ. After Lenin's return, Stalin remained in the high councils of the party, but he played a relatively inconspicuous role in the preparations for the October Revolution, which placed the Bolsheviks in power. In the first Cabinet of the Soviet government, he held the post of people's commissar for nationalities.

During the years of the civil war (1918-1921), Stalin distinguished himself primarily as military commissar during the battle of Tsaritsyn (Stalingrad), in the Polish campaign, and on several other fronts. In 1919 he received another important government assignment by being appointed commissar of the Workers and Peasants Inspectorate. 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. Lenin obviously valued Stalin for his organizational talents, for his ability to knock heads together and to cut through bureaucratic red tape. He appreciated Stalin's capabilities as a machine politician, as a troubleshooter, and as a hatchet man.

The strength of Stalin's position in the government and in the party was anchored probably by his secretary generalship, which gave him control over party personnel administration - over admissions, training, assignments, promotions, and disciplinary matters. Thus, although he was relatively unknown to outsiders and even within the party, Stalin doubtless ranked as the most powerful man in Soviet Russia after Lenin.

During Lenin's last illness and after his death in 1924, Stalin served as a member of the three-man committee that conducted the affairs of the party and the country. The other members of this "troika" arrangement were Grigori Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. The best-known activity of this committee during the years 1923-1925 was its successful attempt to discredit Leon Trotsky and to make it impossible for him to assume party leadership after Lenin's death. After the committee succeeded in this task, Stalin turned against his two associates, who after some hesitation made common cause with Trotsky. The conflict between these two groups can be viewed either as a power struggle or as a clash of personalities, but it also concerned political issues - a dispute between the left wing and the right wing of bolshevism. The former feared a conservative perversion of the revolution, and the latter were confident that socialism could be reached even in an isolated and relatively backward country. In this dispute Stalin represented, for the time being, the right wing of the party. He and his theoretical spokesman, Nikolai Bukharin, warned against revolutionary adventurism and argued in favour of continuing the more cautious and patient policies that Lenin had inaugurated with the NEP (New Economic Policy).

In 1927 Stalin succeeded in defeating the entire left opposition and in eliminating its leaders from the party. He then adopted much of its domestic program by initiating a 5-year plan of industrial development and by executing it with a degree of recklessness and haste that antagonized many of his former supporters, who then formed a right opposition. This opposition, too, was defeated quickly, and by the early 1930s Stalin had gained dictatorial 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 of short stature. He possessed the typical features of Transcaucasians: black hair, black eyes, a short skull, and a large nose. His personality was highly controversial, and it remains shrouded in mystery. Stalin was crude and cruel and, in some important ways, a primitive man. His cunning, distrust, and vindictiveness seem to have reached paranoid proportions. In political life he tended to be cautious and slow-moving. His style of speaking and writing was also ponderous and graceless. Some of his speeches and occasional writings read like a catechism. He was at times, however, a clever orator and a formidable antagonist in debate. Stalin seems to have possessed boundless energy and a phenomenal capacity for absorbing 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. His second wife, Nadezhda Alleluyeva, committed suicide in 1932, presumably in despair over Stalin's dictatorial rule of the party. The only child from his first marriage, Jacob, fell into German hands during World War II 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 successive 5-year plans, the Soviet Union under Stalin industrialized and urbanized with great speed. Although the military needs of the country drained away precious resources and World War II brought total destruction to some of the richest areas of the Soviet Union and death to many millions of citizens, the nation by the end of Stalin's life had become the second most important industrial country in the world.

The price the Soviet Union paid for this great achievement remains staggering. It included the destruction of all remnants of free enterprise in both town and country and the physical destruction of hundreds of thousands of Russian peasants. The transformation of Soviet agriculture in the early 1930s into collectives 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 all areas of endeavour.

In the process of securing his rule and of mobilizing the country for the industrialization effort, Stalin erected a new kind of political system characterized by unprecedented severity in police control, bureaucratic centralization, and personal dictatorship. Historians consider his regime one of history's most notorious examples of totalitarianism.

Stalin also changed the ideology of communism and of the Soviet Union in a subtle but drastic fashion. While retaining the rhetoric of Marxism-Leninism, and indeed transforming it into an inflexible dogma, Stalin also changed it from a revolutionary system of ideas into a conservative and authoritarian theory of state, preaching obedience and discipline as well as veneration of the Russian past. In world affairs the Stalinist system became isolationist. While paying lip service to the revolutionary goals of Karl Marx and Lenin, Stalin sought to promote good relations with the capitalist countries and urged Communist parties to ally themselves with moderate and middle-of-the-road parties in a popular front against the radical right.

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 only in May 1941, when he assumed the office of chairman of the Council of Ministers. After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin also assumed formal command over 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 blunders, but other evidence allows 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 that enlarged its area of domination significantly, partly by annexation and partly by the transformation of all the lands east of the Oder and Neisse rivers into client states.

Judgments of Stalin

Stalin died of a cerebrovascular accident on March 5, 1953. His body was entombed next to Lenin's in the mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow. After his death Stalin became a controversial figure in the Communist world, where appreciation for his great achievements was offset to a varying degree by harsh criticism of his methods. At the Twentieth All-Union Party Congress in 1956, Premier Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders attacked the cult of Stalin, accusing him of tyranny, terror, falsification of history, and self-glorification.


Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, who in revolutionary work was called Koba before adopting the nom de plume Stalin, was born in Gori, Georgia, to a working-class family; his father was a cobbler and his mother a domestic servant. Many of the details of his early life remain in dispute, but his education was gained at a local church school and the Tiflis (Tbilisi in Georgian) Orthodox seminary, from which he was expelled in 1899. He joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party soon after its foundation, and in 1901 was elected to the Tiflis Social Democratic Committee. Following the split in the party in 1903, Stalin became a Bolshevik. For the following decade and a half, he was involved in a variety of revolutionary activities, including the publication of illegal materials, organizational work among workers and within the party, and bank raids to garner funds to sustain party work. He met Vladimir Lenin in 1905, and briefly traveled abroad on party business to Stockholm, London, Kracow, and Vienna. In 1912 he was elected in his absence onto the party Central Committee and became an editor of the party newspaper, Pravda. In 1913 he wrote his most important early work, Marxism and the National Question. His revolutionary work was interrupted by arrest in 1902, 1909, 1912, and 1913; he escaped from the first three bouts of exile and returned to Petrograd from the last one when the tsar fell in February 1917. In 1903 he married his first wife, Yekaterina Svanidze, his son Yakov was born in 1904, and his wife died of tuberculosis in 1907.

When Stalin returned to Petrograd soon after the tsar's fall, he was one of the leading Bolsheviks in the city. He was elected to the newly established Russian bureau of the party and to the editorial board of Pravda. Along with Vyacheslav Molotov and Lev Kamenev, he championed the policy of support for the Provisional Government and a defensist position on the war, until Vladimir Lenin returned in April and overturned these in favor of a more revolutionary stance. Stalin went along with Lenin's views. During the revolutionary period, Stalin seems to have spent most of his time on organizational work. He was not a stirring speaker like Trotsky or someone with the presence of Lenin, and therefore after the return of Lenin and the emigrés, he was not seen as one of the leading lights of the party. Nevertheless, following the seizure of power in October, Stalin became people's commissar for nationalities, a position that from April 1919 he held jointly with the post of people's commissar of state control (from February 1920, the Workers' and Peasants' Inspectorate). The latter post was concerned with the elimination of corruption and inefficiency in the central state machine. During the civil war, Stalin was active on a series of military fronts, and it was at this time that his first major clash with Leon Trotsky occurred. More importantly, when the Politburo, Orgburo, and Secretariat of the Central Committee were established in March 1919, Stalin became a member of all three. He was the only member simultaneously of these bodies and the CC, and was therefore in a place of significant organizational power. In April 1922 he was elected general secretary of the party, and therefore the formal head of the party's organizational machine. With Lenin's illness from May 1922 and his death in January 1924, Stalin was able to make use of this power to consolidate his control at the top of the party structure.

Lenin's death was followed by intensified factional conflict among his would-be successors.

Between 1923 and 1929, Stalin and his supporters successively outmanoeuvered Trotsky and his supporters, the Left Opposition, the United Opposition, and the Right Opposition, so that by the end of the decade, Stalin was primus inter pares. Stalin's success in these factional conflicts has usually been attributed to the organizational powers stemming from his ability to use the machinery of the party to promote his supporters and exclude the supporters of his opponents. This was clearly a significant factor in his ability to outflank his opponents at party meetings and use those symbolically to defeat them through a party vote. Stalin was the source of jobs, and therefore someone who was attractive to many with ambitions in Soviet politics. But Stalin was also a person who espoused the sorts of policies that would have appealed to many rank-and-file Bolsheviks: The ability of the USSR to build socialism in one country rather than having to wait for international revolution and the need to shift from the gradualist framework of NEP into a more revolutionary attempt to build socialism, were two of the most important of such policies. Thus through a combination of the weaknesses of his opponents, the strength of his organizational power, and the attractiveness of many of the positions he espoused, Stalin was able to triumph over his more fancied rivals for leadership; he was even able to overcome the negative evaluation of him in Lenin's so-called Testament.

Stalin's defeat of his more prominent rivals did not mean that he was secure in the leadership of the party in the early 1930s. At the end of 1927, at Stalin's behest the party adopted the first of a series of decisions that led to the abandonment of the moderation of the New Economic Policy and its replacement by an increasingly rapid pace of industrialization and agricultural collectivization. This produced continuing strains within the party, even when the most prominent opponents of this new course - the Right Opposition led by Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, and Mikhail Tomsky - had been defeated in 1929. In late 1930 the Syrtsov-Lominadze group and in 1932 the Ryutin Platform were two important instances of high-ranking party members criticizing the course of economic policy, with the latter even calling for Stalin's removal. For many within the party's leading ranks, the gamble on forced pace industrialization and agricultural collectivization, while justifiable in terms of the achievement of the ultimate goal of a socialist society, was in practice proving to be more costly and disruptive than they had been led to believe. The reports of widespread popular opposition to collectivization raised the spectre of the increased isolation of the party within the society; the trials of so-called saboteurs in 1930 and 1931 only increased this sense. They were not reassured by the increasing glorification of Stalin personally that began on his fiftieth birthday in December 1929. The cult of Stalin that thus emerged was clearly an attempt to shift the basis of political legitimacy away from the party and onto the person of Stalin.

At this time of political uncertainty, in November 1932 Stalin's second wife, Nadezhda Allilueva who he had married in 1919, died. At the time it was announced that she had died of a heart attack, but it was widely believed that she had shot herself. There have also been rumours that Stalin himself killed her, but the truth is still not known.

In 1933 a party purge, or chistka, was announced. This was to be a bloodless affair involving a check on the performance of all party members and the expulsion of those whose performance was found to be deficient. This was followed by similar campaigns in 1935 and 1936. Against this background of suspicion of the true beliefs and commitment of some party members, the seventeenth congress of the party was held in January - February 1934. This congress, the so-called Congress of Victors, announced the successful completion of collectivization, and although there was a significant level of public glorification of Stalin, there was also evidence of some high-level dissatisfaction with him. In December of that year, Leningrad party boss and close associate of Stalin, Sergei Kirov, was assassinated. Kirov's death was used as an excuse to crack down on various elements including so-called Trotskyites and Zinovievites. In January 1935, Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, and seventeen other members of a reputed "centre" were tried and convicted of moral and political responsibility for the death of Kirov, and were sentenced to imprisonment. This wave of purging tapered off by the middle of 1935. However, it surged once again in 1936, paradoxically at the time of the discussion of the new Stalin state Constitution adopted in December 1936, lasting unabated until the end of 1938. The so-called Great Terror, symbolized by the show trials of Old Bolsheviks in August 1936, January 1937, and March 1938, destroyed all semblance of opposition to Stalin and left him supreme at the apex of the party. He was now the unchallenged leader of the country, the vozhd, untrammelled by considerations of collective leadership, the absolute arbiter of the futures of all of those who worked with him in the leadership and in the country as a whole.

The personal primacy of Stalin, symbolically celebrated in a new peak of adulation at the time of his sixtieth birthday, occurred at a time of increasing international tension. In August 1939 the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was signed, an agreement that Stalin had actively sought. The results of that pact were played out in the following two years, with Soviet territorial gains on its western border. In May 1941 Stalin became chairman of the Council of People's Commissars, or prime minister, to add to his position as General secretary. The following month, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, ushering in a new phase in Stalin's leadership, that of the war leader.

From the time of the attack, Stalin was closely involved in organizing the defense of the Soviet Union. The long public delay in any announcement from him following the opening of hostilities led many to claim that Stalin, who had seemingly ignored all warnings about the likelihood of German attack, had been mentally paralyzed by the attack and took no part in the initial Soviet response. However, it has now become clear that Stalin was busy in meetings during this time, participating as he did right through the war in the resolution of issues not just of civil government but of military strategy and tactics. Throughout the conflict, Stalin was closely involved in a practical capacity in directing the Soviet war effort. He was also important symbolically. By mobilizing Russian nationalism and presenting himself as its personification, Stalin became the ultimate symbol of both the Soviet populace and its armed forces. His refusal to leave Moscow, even when German troops were at its gates, reinforced this image. It is probable that the war ushered in the highest point of Stalin's real, as opposed to cult-presented, popularity. Stalin became known as the Generalissimo.

With the end of the war, the Soviet Union was clearly one of the leading powers remaining and Stalin was an international figure, as symbolized by his presence at the conferences with the British and U.S. leaders in Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam. He ruled over not only the Soviet Union, but also the newly established socialist states in Eastern Europe. At home, there was a return to orthodoxy as controls were tightened once again following the relaxation of the wartime period. Stalin's personal control remained undiminished. The leadership functioned as Stalin demanded; formal party organs were largely replaced by loose groupings of individual leaders summoned at Stalin's whim and carrying out whatever tasks he accorded to them.

Always a suspicious man, Stalin's sense of paranoia seems to have grown in the post-war period, something fuelled by the Cold War. Although there were no purges on the scale of the 1930s, the more limited use of coercion and terror occurred in the Leningrad affair of 1949 - 1950, the Mingrelian case of 1951 - 1952, and the Doctors' Plot of 1952 - 1953. As in the 1930s, such purging occurred against a backdrop of the apogee of the Stalin cult at the time of his seventieth birthday in 1949. In this period, Stalin was probably more detached from the daily process of political life than he had ever been. But this does not mean that he was any less powerful; he still set the tenor of political life, and he was in a position to be able to decide any issue he wished to decide, which is the true measure of a dictator. His colleagues, really subordinates, may have maneuvered among themselves for increased power and for particular policy positions, but none challenged his primacy. Stalin died on March 5, 1953, probably of natural causes; some have argued that some of his leadership colleagues may have poisoned him, but there has been no evidence to sustain this accusation.

Both of Stalin's wives died at an early age, and he seems to have had difficult relations with his children. From his second marriage he had a son, Vasily (b. 1921) and a daughter Svetlana (b. 1926), both of whom outlived him. Stalin seems to have had little personal contact with either of these children or with Yakov, his son by his first marriage. Vasily joined the air force during the war and through his father's patronage quickly rose to a leadership position. He subsequently became an alcoholic. Yakov was in the army and was captured by the Germans; reports suggest that Stalin refused a prisoner swap that would have returned Yakov to him. After Stalin's death, Svetlana married a citizen of India, and when he died in 1966 she took his body to India and decided to remain abroad, returning briefly in 1984.

Stalin was the longest-serving leader of the Soviet Union and clearly left a major imprint on its development. He has been described as cruel, secretive, manipulative, opportunistic, doctrinaire, paranoid, devoid of human feelings and sentiment, single-minded, and power-hungry. All of these descriptions can find sustenance in different aspects of Stalin's biography. Where the balance lies remains a matter of debate. What is clear is that when he believed it was required, he could be ruthless in the actions he took against both enemies and supposed friends. In this sense, he was a man of action. He was not an intellectual, despite the claims of the cult. His literary output was moderate in size and generally both turgid in prose and mechanical in its arguments, but it did gain the status of orthodoxy within the USSR, a function of his political dominance rather than the intrinsic merit of his work.

Stalin's life remains the subject of debate. Many aspects are still highly controversial, with scholars disagreeing widely on them. The following are among the most important of these.

Why was Stalin victorious? This question has often been posed in a broader form: Why did the Stalinist system emerge in the Soviet Union, the first attempt to create a socialist society on a national scale? Debate on this question has been vigorous precisely because of the implications its answer was seen to have for socialist aspirations more generally. Many, particularly on the right of the political spectrum, argued that such a system was a logical, even inevitable, result of revolution and the sort of system that Lenin set in place. Others argued that, while the Leninist system may have made a highly coercive, undemocratic system more likely, this was neither the necessary nor inevitable outcome of either the revolution or Leninism. Many argued the primacy of organizational factors, especially the power Stalin was able to gain and exercise within the party apparatus. Others emphasized the importance of Stalin's personality, skills, and talents, especially in contrast to those of his opponents. Another strand of argument focused upon the regime's desire to bring about substantial socioeconomic change in an economically and politically backward society, a situation requiring a high level of centralization and coercion. Others noted the role of the party's isolation in Soviet society and the nature of the recruits flowing into its ranks. This question remains unresolved, but an answer, most now agree, involves elements of all of the arguments noted above.

Was Stalin responsible for Kirov's assassination? Those supporting the view that Stalin was responsible argue that Kirov was seen as a possible challenge to or replacement for Stalin, and accordingly Stalin had him assassinated. Other suggestions have been that Kirov's killer was indeed working for a bloc of oppositionists as Stalin and his supporters claimed, that he was working alone, or that it was the security apparatus who had planned a failed assassination attempt to boost their institutional stocks but that this went wrong. Despite research in the archives, no definitive answer has been forthcoming, and all cases remain circumstantial.

There is now no doubt about Stalin's responsibility for the terror. This was not a normal party purge that went off the rails. Given Stalin's position in the party organization and the position occupied by his supporters, this could not have gone ahead without his permission. He probably did not have an exact idea of how many people suffered during the terror, but he must have had an idea of the general dimensions, and he certainly knew of some of the individuals who perished, because he signed lists of victims submitted to him. Ultimately Stalin was responsible, even if the primary role in the direction of it lay with his henchmen.

Was Stalin planning another major purge when he died? Those who argue in favour of this point to the buildup of pressure through the Leningrad affair, the Mingrelian case, and the Doctors' Plot, and the enlargement of the party Presidium at the nineteenth congress of the party in October 1952. This was seen as preparatory to purging some of the older established leaders and bringing newer ones forward. Many of those who accept this logic also accept that Stalin was poisoned. There is no firm evidence about Stalin's intentions either way, and unless compelling evidence comes from the archives, this will remain a moot point.

Finally there is the question of the costs and benefits of Stalin and his regime. Under his rule, the Soviet Union moved from being a backward, predominantly agricultural country to one of the two superpowers on the globe. The living standards of many of its people rose significantly, as did literacy and education levels. Urbanization transformed the landscape. And the Soviet Union won the war against Hitler, something that would have been highly unlikely without high-level industrialization. But critics point to the costs: millions killed as a result of famine, terror, and collectivization; the massive wastage of resources; the establishment of an economic system that ultimately could not sustain itself; the development of a society which crushed individual initiative and free thinking. This was an ambiguous legacy, and one that therefore was difficult for the regime to handle. Under Khrushchev, destalinization was a limited policy that refused to come to grips with the reality of the Stalin regime. When discussion was again permitted, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the political circumstances of the time prevented a balanced evaluation from emerging. Russia still must broach this question, but it is likely that this will only happen in a satisfactory way when the Stalin issue is not seen to have contemporary political relevance. That may be some time off.






Josef Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union from mid-1920s to his death in 1953 and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1922-1953), a position which had later become that of party leader.

Stalin became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1922 and following the death of Vladimir Lenin, he prevailed over Leon Trotsky in a power struggle during the 1920s. In the 1930s Stalin eliminated effective political opposition both within the Party and among the population (see Gulag) and consolidated his authority with the Great Purge, a period of widespread arrests and executions which reached its peak in 1937, remaining in power through World War II and until his death. Stalin molded the features that characterized the new Soviet regime; his policies, based on Marxist Leninist ideology, are often considered to represent a political and economic system called Stalinism.

Under Stalin, who replaced the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s with five year plans (introduced in 1928) and collective farming, the Soviet Union was transformed from a largely peasant society to a major world industrial power by the end of the 1930s. However, collectivization was violently resisted by many peasants, resulting in millions of casualties amid famine and mass repression against peasants deemed "kulaks" by the authorities.

A hard-won victory in World War II (the Great Patriotic War, 1941 45), made possible in part through the capacity for production that was the outcome of industrialization, laid the groundwork for the formation of the Warsaw Pact and established the USSR as one of the two major world powers, a position it maintained for nearly four decades following Stalin's death in 1953.

Stalin's cult of personality, his concentration of power and the means of its execution has led to a common characterization of him as a dictator and to an opinion that he was personally responsible, directly or indirectly, via his policies, for millions or tens of millions of deaths and unjust imprisonments in the Soviet Union.

Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's actual successor, denounced his mass repressions and cult of personality in 1956, initiating the process of "de-Stalinization".

Stalin was born in Gori, Georgia, to a cobbler named Vissarion Jughashvili. His mother, Ekaterina Geladze, was born a serf. Their other three children died young; Joseph, nicknamed "Soso" (the Georgian pet name for Joseph, or the equivalent of the nickname "Joe" in the United States), was effectively an only child. Vissarion Ivanovich Jugashvili was a former serf who, when freed, became a cobbler. He opened his own shop, but quickly went bankrupt, forcing him to work in a shoe factory in Tiflis (Archer 11). Rarely seeing his family and drinking heavily, Vissarion often beat his wife and small son. One of Stalin's friends from childhood wrote, "Those undeserved and fearful beatings made the boy as hard and heartless as his father." The same friend also wrote that he never saw him cry (Hoober 15). Another of his childhood friends, Iremashvili, felt that the beatings by Stalin's father gave him a hatred of authority. He also said that anyone with power over others reminded Stalin of his father's cruelty.

One of the people for whom Ekaterina did laundry and housecleaning was a Gori Jew, David Papismedov. Papismedov gave Joseph, who would help out his mother, money and books to read, and encouraged him. Decades later, Papismedov came to the Kremlin to learn what had become of little Soso. Stalin surprised his colleagues by not only receiving the elderly man, but happily chatting with him in public places.

In 1888, Stalin's father left to live in Tiflis, leaving the family without support. Rumors said he died in a drunken bar fight; however, others said they had seen him in Georgia as late as 1931. At eight years old, Soso began his education at the Gori Church School. When attending school in Gori, Soso was among a very diverse group of students. Stalin and his classmates were mostly Georgian and spoke one of the seventy Caucasian languages. However, at school they were forced to use Russian. Even when speaking in Russian, their Russian teachers mocked Stalin and his classmates because of their Georgian accents. His peers were mostly the sons of affluent priests, officials, and merchants.

Although Stalin later sought to hide his Georgian origins, during his childhood he was fascinated by Georgian folklore. The stories he read told of Georgian mountaineers who valiantly fought for Georgian independence. Stalin's favorite hero of these stories was a legendary mountain ranger named Koba, which became his first alias as a revolutionary. He graduated first in his class and age 14 he was awarded a scholarship to the Tiflis Theological Seminary, a Russian Orthodox institution which he attended from 1894 onward. In addition to the small stipend from the scholarship he was also paid for singing in the choir. Although his mother wanted him to be a priest (even after he had become leader of the Soviet Union), he attended seminary not because of any religious vocation, but because it was one of the few educational opportunities available as the Tsarist government of Russia was wary of establishing a university in Georgia.

Stalin's involvement with the socialist movement (or, to be more exact, that branch of it that later became the communist movement) began at the seminary. During these school years, Stalin joined a Georgian Social-Democratic organization, and began propagating Marxism. Stalin was expelled from the seminary in 1899 for these actions. He worked for a decade with the political underground in the Caucasus, experiencing repeated arrests and exile to Siberia between 1902 and 1917. He adhered to Vladimir Lenin's doctrine of a strong centralist party of professional revolutionaries. His practical experience made him useful in Lenin's Bolshevik party, gaining him a place on its Central Committee in January 1912. Some historians have argued that, during this period, Stalin was actually a Tsarist spy, who was working to infiltrate the Bolshevik party, but there are no reliable documents to substantiate this. In 1913 he adopted the name Stalin, which means "man of steel" in Russian.

His only significant contribution to the development of Marxist theory at this time was a treatise, written while he was briefly in exile in Vienna, Marxism and the national question. It presents an orthodox Marxist position on this important debate. This treatise may have contributed to his appointment as People's Commissar for Nationalities Affairs after the revolution (see Lenin's article On the right of nations to self-determination for comparison).

Stalin's first wife was Ekaterina Svanidze, to whom he was married for just three years until her death in 1907. At her funeral, Stalin said that any warm feelings he had for people died with her, for only she could mend his heart. With her he had a son, Yakov Dzhugashvili, with whom he did not get along in later years. Yakov served in the Red Army and was captured by the Nazis. They offered to exchange him for a German officer, but Stalin turned the offer down, allegedly saying "I have no son named Yakov," and Yakov is said to have died running into an electric fence in the camp where he was being held. This however, is the "official report", and to this day, his cause of death is not known. Nonetheless, there are many who believe his death was a suicide.

His second wife was Nadezhda Alliluyeva, who died in 1932; she may have committed suicide by shooting herself after a quarrel with Stalin, leaving a suicide note which according to their daughter was "partly personal, partly political". "Officially", she died of an illness, but other theories claim that Stalin himself killed her. It is alleged that Stalin had said "She died an enemy," at her funeral. With her, he had two children: a son, Vassili, and a daughter, Svetlana. Vassili rose through the ranks of the Soviet Air Force, but died an alcoholic in 1962. Stalin doted on Svetlana when she was young, but she ended up defecting from the Soviet Union in 1967.

Stalin's mother died in 1937; he did not attend the funeral but instead sent a wreath. Stalin is said to have remained bitter at his mother because of her forcing him to join the Tiflis Theological Seminary, and is reputed to have called her "an old whore."

In March 2001, Russian Independent Television NTV discovered a previously unknown grandson living in Novokuznetsk. Yuri Davydov told NTV that his father had told him of his lineage, but, because the campaign against Stalin's cult of personality was in full swing at the time, he was told to keep quiet. Several historians, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn, had mentioned a son being born to Stalin and his common law wife, Lida, in 1918 during his exile in northern Siberia.

In 1912 Stalin was co-opted to the Bolshevik Central Committee at the Prague Party Conference. In 1917 Stalin was editor of Pravda while Lenin and much of the Bolshevik leadership were in exile. Following the February Revolution, Stalin and the editorial board took a position in favor of supporting Kerensky's provisional government and, it is alleged, went to the extent of declining to publish Lenin's articles arguing for the provisional government to be overthrown. When Lenin returned from exile, he wrote the April Theses which put forward his position.

In April 1917, Stalin was elected to the Central Committee with the third highest vote total in the party and was subsequently elected to the Politburo of the Central Committee (May 1917); he held this position for the remainder of his life.

According to many accounts, Stalin only played a minor role in the revolution of November 7.Other writers such as Adam Ulam stressed that each man in the Central Committee had a job he was assigned to do.

During the Russian Civil War and Polish-Soviet War, Stalin was political commissar of the Red Army at various fronts. Stalin's first government position was as People's Commissar of Nationalities Affairs (1917-23). Also, he was People's Commissar of Workers and Peasants Inspection (1919-22), a member of the Revolutionary Military Council of the republic (1920-23) and a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets (from 1917).

In April 1922 Stalin became general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, a post that he subsequently built up into the most powerful in the country. This position was an unwanted one within the party (Stalin was sometimes referred to as "Comrade Card-Index" by fellow party members) but Stalin saw its potential as a power base. The position had great influence on who joined the party. This allowed him to fill the party with his allies. Stalin's accumulation of personal power increasingly alarmed the dying Lenin, and in Lenin's Testament he famously called for the removal of the "rude" Stalin, also stating that Stalin's views were too extreme and violent. However, this document was suppressed by members of the Central Committee, many of whom were also criticised by the Bolshevik leader in the testament.

After Lenin's death in January 1924, Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev together governed the party, placing themselves ideologically between Trotsky (on the left wing of the party) and Bukharin (on the right).

During this period, Stalin abandoned the traditional Bolshevik emphasis on international revolution in favor of a policy of building "Socialism in One Country", in contrast to Trotsky's theory of Permanent Revolution. Stalin would soon switch sides and join with Bukharin. Together they fought a new opposition of Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev. By 1928 (the first year of the Five-Year Plans) Stalin was supreme among the leadership, and the following year Trotsky was exiled because of his intrigues. Having also outmaneuvered Bukharin's Right Opposition and now advocating collectivization and industrialization, Stalin can be said to have exercised control over the party and the country. However, as the popularity of other leaders such as Sergei Kirov and the so-called Ryutin Affair were to demonstrate, Stalin did not achieve absolute power until the Great Purge of 1936 38.

The Russian Civil War had had a devastating effect on the country's economy. Industrial output in 1922 was 13% of that in 1914. Under Stalin's direction, the New Economic Policy, which allowed a degree of market flexibility within the context of socialism, was replaced by a system of centrally ordained Five-Year Plans in the late 1920s. These called for a highly ambitious program of state-guided crash industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. In spite of early breakdowns and failures, the first two Five-Year Plans achieved rapid industrialization from a very low economic base. The Soviet Union, generally ranked as the poorest nation in Europe in 1922, now industrialized at a phenomenal rate, far surpassing Germany's pace of industrialization in the 19th century and Japan's earlier in the 20th.

With no seed capital, little foreign trade, and barely any modern industry to start with, Stalin's government financed industrialization by both restraining consumption on the part of ordinary Soviet citizens, to ensure that capital went for re-investment into industry, and by ruthless extraction of wealth from the peasantry. In specific but common cases, industrial labor was knowingly underpaid. First, there was use of the almost free labor of prisoners in forced-labor camps. Second, there was frequent "mobilization" of communists and Komsomol members for various construction projects.

Stalin's regime moved to force collectivization of agriculture. The theory behind collectivization was that it would replace small-scale unmechanised and inefficient farms with large-scale mechanized farms that would produce food far more efficiently.

Collectivization meant drastic social changes, on a scale not seen since the abolition of serfdom in 1861, and alienation from control of the land and its produce. Collectivization also meant a drastic drop in living standards for many peasants, and it faced widespread and often violent resistance among the peasantry.

In the first years of collectivization, it was estimated that industrial and agricultural production would rise by 200% and 50%, respectively; however, agricultural production actually dropped. Stalin blamed this unexpected drop on kulaks (rich peasants), who resisted collectivization. Therefore those defined as "kulaks," "kulak helpers" and later "ex-kulaks" were to be shot, placed into Gulag labor camps, or deported to remote areas of the country, depending on the charge.

The two-stage progress of collectivization interrupted for a year by Stalin's famous editorial, "Dizzy with success" (Pravda, March 2, 1930) is a prime example of his capacity for tactical retreats.

Many historians agree that the disruption caused by forced collectivization was largely responsible for major famines which caused up to 5 million deaths in 1932 33, particularly in Ukraine and the lower Volga region. (Chairman Mao Zedong of China would trigger a similar famine in 1958 to 1960 with his Great Leap Forward.)

Not only rich peasants were killed. The Black Book of Communism documents that all grains were taken from areas that did not meet targets, including the next year's seed grain. It also documents that peasants were forced to remain in the starving areas, sales of train tickets were stopped, and the State Political Directorate set up barriers to prevent people from leaving the starving areas (p. 164). The Soviet Union exported grain while millions of Soviet citizens were starving to death (p. 167).

Science in the Soviet Union was under strict ideological control, along with art, literature and everything else. On the positive side, there was significant progress in "ideologically safe" domains due to the free Soviet education system and state-financed research. However, in several cases the consequences of ideological pressure were dramatic, the most notable examples being the "bourgeois pseudosciences," genetics and cybernetics.

In the late 1940s there were also attempts to suppress special and general relativity, as well as quantum mechanics, on grounds of "idealism." However, top Soviet physicists made it clear that without using these theories, they would be unable to create a nuclear bomb.

Linguistics was the only area of Soviet academic thought to which Stalin personally and directly contributed. At the beginning of Stalin's rule, the dominant figure in Soviet linguistics was Nikolai Yakovievich Marr, who argued that language is a class construction and that language structure is determined by the economic structure of society. Stalin, who had previously written about language policy as People's Commissar for Nationalities, felt he grasped enough of the underlying issues to coherently oppose this simplistic Marxist formalism, ending Marr's ideological dominance over Soviet linguistics. Stalin's principal work discussing linguistics is a small essay, Marxism and Linguistic Questions. Although no great theoretical contributions or insights came from it, neither were there any apparent errors in Stalin's understanding of linguistics; his influence arguably relieved Soviet linguistics from the sort of ideologically driven theory that dominated genetics.

Scientific research in nearly all areas was hindered by the fact that many scientists were sent to labor camps (including Lev Landau, later a Nobel Prize winner, who spent a year in prison in 1938 39) or executed (e.g. Lev Shubnikov, shot in 1937). They were persecuted for their (real or imaginary) dissident views, and seldom for "politically incorrect" research.

Nevertheless, great progress was made under Stalin in some areas of science and technology. It laid the ground for the famous achievements of Soviet science in the 1950s, such as the development of the BESM-1 computer in 1953 and the launching of Sputnik in 1957. Indeed, many politicians in the United States began to fear, after the "Sputnik crisis," that their country had been eclipsed by the Soviet Union in science and in public education.

Stalin's government placed heavy emphasis on the provision of free medical services. Campaigns were carried out against typhus, cholera, and malaria; the number of doctors was increased as rapidly as facilities and training would permit; and death and infant mortality rates steadily declined. General education was free and was dramatically expanded, with many more Soviet citizens learning to read and write, and higher education also expanded. Likewise, the generation that grew up under Stalin saw a major expansion in job opportunities, especially for women.

It was during Stalin's reign that the official and long-lived style of Socialist Realism was established for painting, sculpture, music, drama and literature. Previously fashionable "revolutionary" expressionism, abstract art, and avant-garde experimentation were discouraged or denounced as "formalism."

Careers were made and broken, some more than once. Famous names were repressed, both "revolutionaries" (among them Isaac Babel, Vsevolod Meyerhold) and "non-conformists" (for example, Osip Mandelstam). Others, both representing the "Soviet man" (Arkady Gaidar) and remnants of the older pre-revolutionary Russia (Konstantin Stanislavski), thrived. A number of former emigr s returned to the Soviet Union, among them Alexei Tolstoi in 1925, Alexander Kuprin in 1936, and Alexander Vertinsky in 1943. It is of note that Anna Akhmatova was subjected to several cycles of suppression and rehabilitation, but was never herself arrested, although her first husband, poet Nikolai Gumilev, had been shot in 1921, and her son, historian Lev Gumilev, spent two decades in the Gulag.

The degree of Stalin's personal involvement in general and specific developments has been assessed variously. His name, however, was constantly invoked during his reign in discussions of culture as in just about everything else; and in several famous cases, his opinion was final.

Stalin's occasional beneficence showed itself in strange ways. For example, Mikhail Bulgakov was driven to poverty and despair; yet, after a personal appeal to Stalin, he was allowed to continue working. His play, "The Days of the Turbins," with its sympathetic treatment of an anti-Bolshevik family caught in the Civil War, was finally staged, apparently also on Stalin's intervention, and began a decades-long uninterrupted run at the Moscow Arts Theater.

Some insights into Stalin's political and esthetic thinking might perhaps be gleaned by reading his favorite novel, Pharaoh, by the Polish writer Bolesław Prus, a historical novel on mechanisms of political power. Similarities have been pointed out between this novel and Sergei Eisenstein's film, Ivan the Terrible, produced under Stalin's tutelage.

In architecture, a Stalinist Empire Style (basically, updated neoclassicism on a very large scale, exemplified by the seven skyscrapers of Moscow) replaced the constructivism of the 1920s. An amusing anecdote has it that the Moskva Hotel in Moscow was built with mismatched side wings because Stalin had mistakenly signed off on both of the two proposals submitted, and the architects had been too afraid to clarify the matter. (This was actually just a joke: the hotel had been built by two independent teams of architects that had different visions of how the hotel should look.)

Stalin's role in the fortunes of the Russian Orthodox Church is complex. Continuous persecution in the 1930s resulted in its near-extinction: by 1939, active parishes numbered in the low hundreds (down from 54,000 in 1917), many churches had been levelled, and tens of thousands of priests, monks and nuns were dead or imprisoned. During World War II, however, the Church was allowed a partial revival, as a patriotic organization: thousands of parishes were reactivated, until a further round of suppression in Khrushchev's time. The Church Synod's recognition of the Soviet government and of Stalin personally led to a schism with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia that remains not fully healed to the present day. Just days before Stalin's death, certain religious sects were outlawed and persecuted.

Stalin, as head of the Politburo, consolidated near-absolute power in the 1930s with a Great Purge of his political and ideological opponents (real or merely suspected), culminating in the extermination of the majority of the original Bolshevik Central Committee and of over half of the largely pliant delegates of the 17th Party Congress in January 1934. Measures ranged from imprisonment in Gulag labor camps to execution after a show trial or summary trial by NKVD troikas. Some argue that a motive for the purge was a feeling that the Party needed to be unified in the face of anticipated conflict with Nazi Germany; others believe that it was motivated only by Stalin's desire to consolidate his own power.

Several trials known as the Moscow Trials were held, but the procedures were replicated throughout the country. There were four key trials during this period: the Trial of the Sixteen (August 1936); Trial of the Seventeen (January 1937); the trial of Red Army generals, including Marshal Tukhachevsky (June 1937); and finally the Trial of the Twenty One (including Bukharin) in March 1938.

Trotsky's August 1940 assassination in Mexico, where he had lived in exile since 1936, eliminated the last of Stalin's opponents among the former Party leadership. Only three members of the "Old Bolsheviks" (Lenin's Politburo) now remained in Politburo Stalin himself, "the all-Union Chieftain" (всесоюзный староста) Mikhail Kalinin, and Chairman of Sovnarkom Vyacheslav Molotov. The repression of so many formerly high-ranking revolutionaries and party members led Leon Trotsky to claim that a "river of blood" separated Stalin's regime from that of Lenin. However, it has been argued that Stalin only continued the political repressions that had started under Lenin's regime, such as labor camps and express executions of political opponents.

No segment of society was left untouched during the purges. Article 58 of the legal code, listing prohibited "anti-Soviet activities", was applied in the broadest manner. Initially, the execution lists for the enemies of the people were confirmed by the Politburo. Over time the procedure was greatly simplified and delegated down the line of command. The Russian word troika gained a new meaning: a quick, simplified trial by a committee of three subordinated to NKVD. Towards the end of the purge, the Politburo relieved NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov, from his position for overzealousness. He was subsequently executed. Some historians such as Amy Knight and Robert Conquest postulate that Stalin had Yezhov and his predecessor, Yagoda, removed in order to deflect blame from himself.

Shortly before, during and immediately after World War II, Stalin conducted a series of deportations on a huge scale which profoundly affected the ethnic map of the Soviet Union. Over 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia and the Central Asian republics. Separatism, resistance to Soviet rule and collaboration with the invading Germans were cited as the main official reasons for the deportations.

The following ethnic groups were deported completely or partially: Poles, Koreans, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, Meskhetian Turks, Finns, Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians. Large numbers of Kulaks, regardless of their nationality, were resettled to Siberia and Central Asia.

In February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev condemned the deportations as a violation of Leninist principles, and reversed most of them, although it was not until as late as 1991 that the Tatars, Meskhs and Volga Germans were allowed to return en masse to their homelands. The deportations had a profound effect on the peoples of the Soviet Union. The memory of the deportations played a major part in the separatist movements in the Baltic republics, Tatarstan and Chechnya.

About one million people were shot during the periods 1935 38, 1942 and 1945 50 and millions of people were transported to Gulag labor camps. In Georgia about 80,000 people were shot during 1921, 1923 24, 1935 38, 1942 and 1945-50, and more than 100,000 people were transported to Gulag camps.

On March 5, 1940, Stalin himself and other Soviet leaders signed the order to execute 25,700 Polish intelligentsia including 14,700 Polish POWs. It became known as Katyn massacre. See massacre of prisoners.

It is generally agreed by historians that if famines, prison and labor camp mortality, and state terrorism (deportations and political purges) are taken into account, Stalin and his colleagues were directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions. How many millions died under Stalin is greatly disputed. Although no official figures have been released by the Soviet or Russian governments, most estimates put the figure between 10 and 50 million. Comparison of the 1926 37 census results suggests 5 10 million deaths in excess of what would be normal in the period, mostly through famine in 1931 34. The 1926 census shows the population of the Soviet Union at 147 million and in 1937 another census found a population of between 162 and 163 million. This was 14 million less than the projected population value and was suppressed as a "wrecker's census" with the census takers severely punished. A census was taken again in 1939, but its published figure of 170 million has been generally attributed directly to the decision of Stalin. Note that the figure of 14 million does not have to imply 14 million additional deaths, since as many as 3 million may be births that never took place due to reduced fertility and choice.

Since "the margin of error" with regard to the number of Stalin's victims is virtually impossible to narrow down to a universally accepted figure, various historians have come up with extremely varying estimates of the number of victims, the highest being 60 million deaths.

A quote popularly attributed to Stalin is "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." (possibly said in response to Churchill at the Potsdam Conference in 1945).

After declining Franco-British missions to Moscow in hopes that the USSR would enter a treaty of Polish defense with them, Stalin began to negotiate a non-aggression pact with Hitler's Germany. In his speech on August 19, 1939, Stalin prepared his comrades for the great turn in Soviet policy, the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany which divided Central Europe into the two powers' respective spheres of influence. The exact motivations behind this pact are disputed, but it appears that neither side expected it to last very long.

On September 1, 1939, the German invasion of Poland started World War II. According to the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, Eastern Poland was in the Soviet sphere of influence. Hence, Stalin decided to intervene and on September 17 the Red Army invaded Poland as well. Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to modify the spheres of influences slightly and Poland was divided between these two states.

According to the pact, the Soviets were promised a slice of Poland, the annexation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and an undisturbed military advance on Finland, which the Soviets acted on almost immediately. In November, 1939, Stalin sent troops over the Finnish border provoking war. The Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland proved to be more difficult than Stalin and the Red Army was prepared for, and the Soviets sustained high casualties. The Soviets finally prevailed in March, 1940, but their inferior army had been revealed to the rest of the world, including Germany.

In June 1941, Hitler broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Stalin had not expected this or at the very least, he had not expected an invasion to come so soon and the Soviet Union was largely unprepared for this invasion. Until the last moment, Stalin had sought to avoid any obvious defensive preparation which might provoke German attack, in the hope of buying time to modernise and strengthen his military forces. Even after the attack commenced, Stalin appeared unwilling to accept the fact and, according to some historians, was too stunned to react appropriately for a number of days. A controversial theory put forward by Viktor Suvorov asserts that Stalin had been preparing an invasion of Germany while neglecting preparations for defensive warfare, which left Soviet forces vulnerable despite their heavy concentration near the border. Such speculations are difficult to substantiate, as information on the Soviet Army from 1939 to 1941 remains classified, but it is known that the Soviets had advanced and detailed warnings of the German invasion through their extensive foreign intelligence agents, such as Richard Sorge.

The Nazis initially made huge advances, capturing and killing millions of Soviet troops. The 1937 38 execution of many of the Red Army's experienced generals had a severely debilitating effect on the ability of the USSR to organize defences. Hitler's experts had expected eight weeks of war, and early indications evidenced their prescience.

In response on November 6, 1941, Stalin addressed the Soviet Union for only the second time during his three-decade rule (the first time was earlier that year on July 2). He claimed that although 350,000 troops had been killed by German attacks, the Germans had lost 4.5 million soldiers (an inflated figure) and that Soviet victory was near. The Soviet Red Army did put up fierce resistance, but during the war's early stages was largely ineffective against the better-equipped and trained German forces, until the invaders were halted and then driven back in December 1941 in front of Moscow. Stalin then worked with independent-minded Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov to orchestrate the decisive German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad.

Stalin met in several conferences with Churchill and/or Roosevelt in Moscow, Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam to plan military strategy. His shortcomings as strategist are frequently noted regarding massive Soviet loss of life and early Soviet defeats. (In his autobiography Khrushchev claimed that Stalin tried to conduct tactical decisions using a world globe.) Yet Stalin did rapidly move Soviet industrial production east of the Volga river, far from Luftwaffe-reach, to sustain the Red Army's war machine with astonishing success. Additionally, Stalin was well aware that other European armies had utterly disintegrated when faced with Nazi military efficacy and responded effectively by subjecting his army to galvanizing terror and unrevolutionary patriotism.

Stalin's Order No. 227 of July 27, 1942 illustrates the ruthlessness with which he sought to stiffen army resolve: all those who retreated or otherwise left their positions without orders to do so were to be summarily shot. Other orders declared that the families of those who surrendered were subject to NKVD terror. Barrier forces of SMERSH were soon set up behind advances to machine-gun anyone who retreated. The surrendering Soviet troops of the first years of Barbarossa were sent to the Gulag after their release from POW camps.

In the war's opening stages, the retreating Red Army also sought to deny resources to the enemy through a scorched earth policy of destroying the infrastructure and food supplies of areas before the Germans could seize them. Unfortunately, this, along with abuse by German troops, caused inconceivable starvation and suffering among the civilian population that were left behind.

After the tide of war had changed in the Soviet Union's favor, the Red Army in its 1945 conquest of eastern Germany took revenge for German depredations and genocide by embarking on a systematic program of pillaging, expropriation, rape and murder against the remaining German civilian inhabitants. This program was officially urged on Red Army men by Soviet propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, who among other things wrote: "Follow the words of Comrade Stalin and crush forever the fascist beast.... Break the racial pride of the German woman. Take her as your legitimate booty." Millions of German women were raped, often gang raped, repeatedly. German sources estimate the number of civilians killed in the final days of the war, and in the process of expelling Germans from lands to be annexed to Poland and the Soviet Union, at 1.5 million to 2 million.

The Soviet Union bore the brunt of civilian and military losses in World War II. Approximately 7 million Red Army personnel and 20 million civilians died. The Nazis considered Slavs to be "sub-human," and many people believe the Nazis killed Slavs as an ethnically targeted genocide. This concept of Slavic inferiority was also the reason why Hitler did not accept into his army many Russians who wanted to fight the Stalinist regime until 1944, when the war was lost for Germany. In the Soviet Union, World War II left a huge deficit of men of the wartime fighting-age generation. To this day the war is remembered very vividly in Russia, Belarus, and other parts of the former Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War, and May 9, Victory Day, is one of Russia's biggest national holidays.

Following World War II, the Red Army occupied much of the territory that had been formerly held by the Axis countries: there were Soviet occupation zones in Germany and Austria, and Hungary and Poland were under practical military occupation, despite the fact that the latter was formally an Allied country. Soviet-friendly governments were established in Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and homegrown communist regimes existed in Yugoslavia and Albania. Finland retained formal independence, but was politically isolated and economically dependent on the Soviet Union. Greece, Italy and France were under the strong influence of local communist parties, which were at the very least friendly towards Moscow. Stalin hoped that the withdrawal of the Americans from Europe would lead to Soviet hegemony over the whole continent. The foundation of Trizonia and American help for the anti-communist side in the Greek Civil War changed the situation. East Germany was proclaimed a separate country in 1949, ruled by German communists. Moreover, Stalin made a decision to switch to direct control over his satellites in Central Europe: all of the countries were to be ruled by local communist parties that tried to implement the Soviet template locally.

In 1948 this decision led to the establishment of Stalinist governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, later called the "Communist Bloc". Communist Albania remained an ally, but Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito broke with the USSR. Stalin viewed Soviet consolidation of power in the region as a necessary step to protect the USSR by surrounding it with countries with friendly governments, to act as a buffer against possible invaders.

This action reversed the hopes of the West that Eastern Europe would be friendly to the West and form a cordon sanitaire (buffer) against Communism. It confirmed the fears of many in the West that the Soviet Union still intended to spread communism across the world. The fear and suspicion was further amplified in 1949 when Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party defeated the pro-Western Chinese Nationalist Party in the Chinese Civil War. The Soviet Union immediately recognized the People's Republic of China, which it regarded as a new ally. The relations between the Soviet Union and its former World War II western allies soon broke down, and gave way to a prolonged period of tension and distrust between east and west known as the Cold War. (See also Iron curtain.)

At home, Stalin presented himself as a great wartime leader who had led the USSR to victory against the Nazis. By the end of 1940s, Russian nationalism increased. For instance, some inventions and scientific discoveries were reclaimed by ethnic Russian researchers. Examples include the boiler engine, reclaimed by father and son Cherepanovs; the electric bulb, by Yablochkov and Lodygin; the radio, by Popov; the airplane, by Mozhaysky; etc.

Stalin's internal repressive policies continued and intensified (including in newly acquired territories), but never reached the extremes of the 1930s.

According to some witness accounts, the anti-Semitic campaigns of 1948-1953 (see Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, rootless cosmopolitan, doctors' plot) were only the precursors of greater repression to come, but if such plans did indeed exist, Stalin died before he could implement them.

Stalin made very few contributions to Communist (or, more specifically, Marxist-Leninist) theory, but the contributions he did make were to be accepted and upheld by all Soviet political scientists during his rule.

In 1936, Stalin announced that the society of the Soviet Union consisted of two non-antagonistic classes: workers and kolkhoz peasantry. These corresponded to the two different forms of property over the means of production that existed in the Soviet Union: state property (for the workers) and collective property (for the peasantry). In addition to these, Stalin distinguished the stratum of intelligentsia. The concept of non-antagonistic classes was entirely new to Leninist theory.

Stalin and his supporters, in his own time and since, have highlighted the notion that socialism can be built and consolidated in just one country, even one as underdeveloped as Russia was during the 1920s, and indeed that this might be the only means in which it could be built in a hostile environment.

According to Khrushchev's autobiography, Stalin frequently engaged in all night partying, with his aides, after which he would sleep all day and expect them to stay up and run the country. On March 1, 1953, after an all-night dinner with interior minister Lavrenty Beria and future premiers Georgi Malenkov, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin collapsed in his room, having probably suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body. Although his guards thought it odd that he did not rise at his usual time the next day they were under orders not to disturb him and he was not discovered until that evening. He died four days later, on March 5, 1953, at the age of 73, and was buried on March 9. Officially, the cause of death was listed as a cerebral hemorrhage. His body was preserved in Lenin's Mausoleum until October 31, 1961, when destalinisation was taking place in the Soviet Union. Stalin's body was then buried by the Kremlin walls.

It has been suggested that Stalin was murdered. The ex-Communist exile Avtorkhanov argued this point as early as 1975. The political memoirs of Vyacheslav Molotov, published in 1993, claimed Beria had boasted to Molotov that he poisoned Stalin: "I took him out." In 2003, a joint group of Russian and American historians announced their view that Stalin ingested warfarin, a powerful rat poison that thins the blood vessels and causes strokes and hemorrhages. Since it is flavorless, warfarin is a plausible murder weapon. But the facts of Stalin's death will probably never be known with certainty. His demise, however, arrived at a convenient time for Beria and others, scheduled to be swept away in another Stalin purge. Whether or not Beria or others were directly responsible for his death it is true that the politburo did not summon medical attention for him for more than a day after he had been found.

Stalin is well known for having created a cult of personality in the Soviet Union around both himself and Lenin. The embalming of the Soviet founder in Lenin's Tomb was done over the objection of Lenin's widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya. Stalin became the focus of massive adoration and even worship. Numerous towns, villages and cities were renamed after the Soviet leader (see List of places named after Stalin) and the Stalin Prize and Stalin Peace Prize were named in his honor. The dictator relished grandiloquent titles (e.g. "Coryphaeus of Science," "Father of Nations," "Brilliant Genius of Humanity," "Great Architect of Communism," "Gardener of Human Happiness"), and helped rewrite Soviet history to provide himself a more significant role in the revolution, meanwhile insisting that he be remembered for "the extraordinary modesty characteristic of truly great people."

Trotsky criticized the cult of personality Stalin built as being against the values of socialism and Bolshevism by exalting the individual above the party and class and making criticism of Stalin unacceptable. The personality cult reached new levels during the Great Patriotic War with Stalin's name even being included in the new Soviet national anthem. Stalin became the focus of a body of literature including poetry as well as music, paintings and film.

O great Stalin, O leader of the peoples,
Thou who broughtest man to birth.
Thou who fructifies the earth,
Thou who restorest to centuries,
Thou who makest bloom the spring,
Thou who makest vibrate the musical chords...
Thou, splendor of my spring, O thou,
Sun reflected by millions of hearts.
(A. O. Avdienko)
In recent years, Stalin's cult of personality has resurged. Millions of Russians, exasperated with the downfall of the economy and instability after the breakup of the Soviet Union, want Stalin back. A recent poll revealed that over twenty-five percent of Russians would vote for Stalin if he were still alive, and the number of people who want a leader like Stalin continues to grow.

Overall, under Stalin's rule the Soviet Union was transformed from an agricultural nation to a global superpower. The USSR's industrialisation was successful in that the country was able to defend against and eventually defeat the Axis invasion in World War II though at an enormous cost of human lives. However, historian Robert Conquest and other Westerners claim that the USSR was bound for industrialisation which was not necessarily enhanced by Bolshevik influence. Several other "what if" speculations do exist, but they are by their very nature unprovable. Many have also argued that Stalin was partially responsible for the initial military disasters and enormous human causalities during WWII, because Stalin eliminated many of the military officers during the purges, especially the most senior ones, and ignored the massive amount of information warning of the German attack.

While Stalin's social and economic policies laid the foundations for the USSR's emergence as a superpower, the harshness in which he conducted Soviet affairs was subsequently repudiated by his successors in the Communist Party leadership, notably the denunciation of Stalinism by Nikita Khrushchev in February 1956. In his "Secret Speech", "On the Personality Cult and its Consequences", delivered to a closed session of the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev denounced Stalin for his cult of personality and his regime for "violation of Leninist norms of legality". However, his immediate successors continued to follow the basic principles of Stalin's rule - the political monopoly of the Communist Party presiding over a command economy and a security service able to suppress dissent. On the other hand the large-scale purges were never repeated.










This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008