Joseph Stalin

Who Was Joseph Stalin?

Picture of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (circa 1935). (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Also Known As: Ioseb Djugashvili (born as), Sosa, Koba

Who Was Joseph Stalin?

During World War II, Stalin maintained an uneasy alliance with the United States and Great Britain to fight Nazi Germany, but dropped any illusions of friendship after the war. As Stalin sought to expand Communism throughout Eastern Europe and around the world, he helped spark the Cold War and the subsequent arms race.

For a photo biography about Joseph Stalin, from his childhood to his death and legacy, click "Next" below.

Stalin's Childhood

Picture of Joseph Stalin as a young boy, at a time when he entered Tiflis seminary.
Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) at the time when he entered Tiflis seminary. (1894). (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

Joseph Stalin was born Joseph Djugashvili in Gori, Georgia (a region annexed by Russia in 1801). He was the third son born to Yekaterina (Keke) and Vissarion (Beso) Djugashvili, but the only one to survive past infancy.

Stalin's Parents Disagree About His Future

The argument came to a head when Stalin was 12 years old. Beso, who had moved to Tiflis (the capital of Georgia) to find work, came back and took Stalin to the factory where he worked so that Stalin could become an apprentice cobbler. This was the last time Beso would assert his vision for Stalin's future. With help from friends and teachers, Keke got Stalin back and once again got him on the path to attend seminary. After this incident, Beso refused to support either Keke or his son, effectively ending the marriage.

Keke supported Stalin by working as a laundress, though she later secured more respectable employment at a women's clothing shop.

The Seminary

Keke was right to note Stalin's intellect, which soon became apparent to his teachers. Stalin excelled in school and earned a scholarship to the Tiflis Theological Seminary in 1894. However, there were signs that Stalin was not destined for the priesthood. Prior to entering the seminary, Stalin was not only a choirboy, but also the ruthless leader of a street gang. Notorious for his cruelty and use of unfair tactics, Stalin’s gang dominated the rough streets of Gori.

Stalin as a Young Revolutionary

Picture of a 1912 arrest card for Joseph Stalin.
A card from the register of the St. Petersburg imperial police on Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. (1912). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While at the seminary, Stalin discovered the works of Karl Marx. He joined the local socialist party and soon his interest in overthrowing Czar Nicholas II and the monarchical system outstripped any desire he might have had to be a priest. Stalin dropped out of school just a few months shy of graduating to become a revolutionary, giving his first public speech in 1900.

The Life of a Revolutionary

In between arrests, Stalin married Yekaterina Svanidze, a sister of a classmate from seminary, in 1904. They had one son, Yacov, before Yekaterina died of tuberculosis in 1907. Yacov was raised by his mother's parents until he was reunited with Stalin in 1921 in Moscow, though the two were never close. Yacov would be among the millions of Russian casualties of World War II.

Stalin Meets Lenin

Because Lenin was in exile, Stalin took over as editor of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, in 1912. That same year, Stalin was appointed to the Bolshevik's Central Committee, cementing his role as a key figure in the Communist movement.

The Name "Stalin"

, his surname. (Stalin would continue to use aliases throughout the rest of his life, though the world would know him as Joseph Stalin.)

Stalin and the 1917 Russian Revolution

Picture of Stalin and Lenin addressing a crowd during the Russian Revolution.
Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin address the proletariat during the Russian Revolution. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Stalin and Lenin Return to Russia

Upon his release in March of 1917, Stalin resumed his role as a Bolshevik leader. By the time he was reunited with Lenin, who also returned to Russia a few weeks after Stalin, Czar Nicholas II had already abdicated as part of the February Russian Revolution. With the czar deposed, the Provisional Government was in charge.

The October 1917 Russian Revolution

The Russian Civil War Begins

lasted until 1921.

Stalin Comes to Power

Picture of Stalin, Lenin, and Kalinin sitting together.
Russian revolutionaries and leaders Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin at the Congress of the Russian Communist Party. (March 23, 1919). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1921, the White Army was defeated, leaving Lenin, Stalin and Leon Trotsky as the dominant figures in the new Bolshevik government. Although Stalin and Trotsky were rivals, Lenin appreciated their distinct abilities and promoted both.

Trotsky vs. Stalin

However, what neither Lenin nor Trotsky foresaw was that Stalin's position allowed him to build loyalty within the Communist Party, as essential factor in his eventual takeover.

Lenin Advocated for Joint Rule

Stalin Comes to Power

Ultimately, Trotsky was no match for Stalin because Stalin had spent his years in the party building loyalty and support. By 1927, Stalin had effectively eliminated all of his political rivals (and exiled Trotsky) to emerge as the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Stalin's Five Year Plans

A picture of Joseph Stalin.
Soviet Communist dictator Joseph Stalin. (circa 1935). (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Stalin's willingness to use brutality to achieve political aims was well established by the time he took power; nevertheless, the Soviet Union (as it was known after 1922) was unprepared for the extreme violence and oppression that Stalin unleashed in 1928. This was the first year of Stalin's Five Year Plan, a radical attempt to bring the Soviet Union into the industrial age.

Stalin's Five Year Plans Caused Famines

To mask the disastrous results of the plan, Stalin maintained export levels, shipping food out of the country even as rural residents died by the hundreds of thousands. Any protest of his policies resulted in immediate death or relocation to a gulag (a prison camp in the remote regions of the nation).

The Disastrous Effects Kept Secret

While all of these plans were unmitigated disasters, Stalin’s policy forbidding any negative publicity led the full consequences of these upheavals to remain hidden for decades. To many who were not directly impacted, the Five Year Plans appeared to exemplify Stalin's proactive leadership.

Stalin's Cult of Personality

A picture of Joseph Stalin with a young girl named Galia.
Soviet Communist leader Joseph Stalin (1879-1953), with Galia Markifova, at a reception for the elite of the workers of the Biviato autonomous socialist republic. In later life, Galia was sent to a labor camp by Stalin. (1935). (Photo by Henry Guttmann/Getty Images)

Stalin is also known for building an unprecedented cult of personality. Presenting himself as a paternal figure watching over his people, Stalin's image and actions could not have been more distinct. While paintings and statues of Stalin kept him in the public eye, Stalin also promoted himself by aggrandizing his past through tales of his childhood and his role in the revolution.

No Dissent Allowed

No Outside Influence

No Free Press

No one was allowed to say a negative thing against Stalin, especially the press. No news of the death and devastation in the countryside was leaked to the public; only news and images that presented Stalin in a flattering light were allowed. Stalin also famously changed the name of the city of Tsaritsyn to Stalingrad in 1925 to honor the city for its role in the Russian civil war.

Nadya, Stalin's Wife

Picture of Joseph Stalin's second wife, Nadya.
Nadezhda Alliluyeva Stalin (1901-1932), the second wife of Joseph Stalin and mother of his children, Vassily and Svetlana. They married in 1919 and she killed herself on November 8th, 1932. (circa 1925). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Stalin Marries Nadya

Nadya Disagrees With Stalin

Nadya Commits Suicide

While their marriage began with mutual affection, Stalin's temperament and alleged affairs contributed greatly to Nadya's depression. After Stalin berated her particularly harshly at a dinner party, Nadya committed suicide on November 9, 1932.

The Great Terror

A picture of Stalin standing in the snow, after the Great Terror.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin after the completion of a series of governmental purges in which most of the Communist Party 'old guard' were dismissed or executed. (1938). (Photo by Ivan Shagin/Slava Katamidze Collection/Getty Images)

Despite Stalin’s attempts to eradicate all dissent, some opposition emerged, particularly among party leaders who understood the devastating nature of Stalin’s policies. Nevertheless, Stalin was reelected in 1934. This election made Stalin keenly aware of his critics and he soon began to eliminate anyone he perceived as opposition, including his most substantial political rival, Sergi Kerov.

The Murder of Sergi Kerov

The Great Terror Begins

Those seized by his secret police would be tortured, imprisoned, or killed (or a combination of these experiences). Stalin was indiscriminate in his targets, and top government and military officials were not immune from prosecution. In fact, the Great Terror eliminated many key figures in government.

Widespread Paranoia

Thinning Out Military Leadership

Death Toll

While the estimates of death tolls vary greatly, the lowest numbers credit Stalin with killing 20 million during the Great Terror alone. Beyond being one of the greatest examples of state-sponsored murder in history, the Great Terror demonstrated Stalin's obsessive paranoia and willingness to prioritize it over national interests.

Stalin and Nazi Germany

Picture of Stalin and Molotov signing the Non-Agression Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939.
Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov checks over the plan for the Demarcation of Poland, while Nazi Foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop stands in the background with Joseph Stalin. (August 23, 1939). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Stalin and Hitler Sign a Non-Aggression Pact

Operation Barbarossa

After Hitler drew the rest of Europe into war in 1939, Stalin pursued his own territorial ambition in the Baltic region and Finland. Although many warned Stalin that Hitler intended to break the pact (as he had with other European powers), Stalin was surprised when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, a full-scale invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

Stalin Joins the Allies

The Big Three (Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill) meeting in Tehran, Iran in 1943.
The 'Big Three' met in person for the first time in Teheran to discuss the co-ordination of allied war efforts. Left to right: Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, U.S President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. (1943). (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin joined the Allied powers, which included Great Britain (led by Sir Winston Churchill) and later the United States (led by Franklin D. Roosevelt). Although they shared a joint enemy, the communist/capitalist rift ensured that mistrust characterized the relationship.

Perhaps Nazi Rule Would Be Better?

Scorched Earth Policy

Stalin Wants Allied Troops

The Atomic Bomb

The Soviets Turn the Nazis Back

in 1943 and forced the retreat of the German army. With the tide turned, the Soviet army continued to push the Germans all the way back to Berlin, ending World War II in Europe in May of 1945.

Stalin and the Cold War

Picture of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sitting in 1950.
Soviet Communist leader Joseph Stalin (1950). (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Soviet Satellite States

The Truman Doctrine

The Berlin Blockade and Airlift

However, determined to not give in to Stalin, the U.S. organized a nearly year-long airlift that flew massive amounts of supplies into West Berlin. These efforts rendered the blockade ineffective and Stalin finally ended the blockade on May 12, 1949. Berlin (and the rest of Germany) remained divided. This division ultimately manifested in the creation of the Berlin Wall in 1961 during the height of the Cold War.

The Cold War Continues

While the Berlin Blockade was the last major military confrontation between Stalin and the West, Stalin’s policies and attitude toward the West would continue as Soviet policy even after Stalin’s death. This competition between the Soviet Union and the United States escalated during the Cold War to the point where nuclear war seemed eminent. The Cold War ended only with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Stalin Dies

Picture of Stalin, after his death, lying in state in the hall of Trade Union House, Moscow.
Soviet Communist leader Joseph Stalin lying in state in the hall of Trade Union House, Moscow. (March 12, 1953). (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Rebuilding and One Last Purge

While he was writing his Collected Works in an attempt to define his legacy as an innovative leader, evidence suggests that Stalin was also working on his next purge, an attempt to eliminate the Jewish population that remained in Soviet territory. This never came to pass since Stalin suffered a stroke on March 1, 1953 and died four days later.

Embalmed and Put on Display

. In spite of the death and destruction he inflicted upon those he ruled, Stalin’s death devastated the nation. The cult-like loyalty he inspired remained, although it would dissipate in time.

Stalin's Legacy

A picture of a huge statue of Joseph Stalin toppled, with someone spitting on his head.
A crowd of people surround the demolished head of a statue of Joseph Stalin, including Daniel Sego, the man who cut off the head, during the Hungarian Revolt, Budapest, Hungary. Sego is spitting on the statue. (December 1956). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


It wasn’t an easy process for the Soviet people to break through Stalin’s cult of personality to see the real truths of his reign. The estimated numbers of dead are staggering. The secrecy regarding those “purged” has left millions of Soviet citizens wondering the exact fate of their loved ones.

No Longer Idolize Stalin

In October of 1961, Stalin's body, which had lain next to Lenin’s for nearly eight years, was removed from the mausoleum. Stalin’s body was buried nearby, surrounded by concrete so that he could not be moved again.