Biography of Joseph Stalin, Dictator of the Soviet Union

Joseph Stalin

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

Joseph Stalin (December 18, 1878–March 5, 1953) was an important leader in the Russian Revolution who became the head of the Communist Party and dictator of the Soviet state known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). During World War II he maintained an uneasy alliance with the United States and Great Britain to fight Nazi Germany, but he 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.

Fast Facts: Joseph Stalin

  • Known For: Bolshevik leader, Russian revolutionary, Head of the Communist Party in Russia and Dictator of the USSR (1927–1953)
  • Born: December 18, 1878 (official date: December 21, 1879) in Gori, Georgia 
  • Parents: Vissarion Dzhugasvhil and Ekaterina Georgievna Geadze
  • Died: March 5, 1953 in Kuntsevo Dacha, Russia
  • Education: Gori Church School (1888–1894), Tiflis Theological Seminary (1894–1899)
  • PublicationsCollected Works
  • Spouse(s): Ekaterina Svanidze (1885–1907, married 1904–1907), Nadezhda Sergeevna Allilueva (1901–1932, m. 1919–1932) 
  • Children: With Ekaterina: Yakov Iosifovich Dzhugashvili (1907–1943); With Nadezhda: Vasily (1921–1962) Svetlana Iosefovna Allilueva (1926–2011)
  • Notable Quote: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Early Life

Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in Gori, Georgia (a region annexed by Russia in 1801) on December 6, 1878, by the Julian calendar then in use; using the modern calendar, that converts to December 18, 1878. He later claimed his "official birthdate" as December 21, 1879. He was the third son of four children born to Ekaterina Georgievna Geadze (Keke) and Vissarion (Beso) Djugashvili, but he was the only one to survive past infancy.

Stalin’s parents had a turbulent marriage, with Beso often beating his wife and son. Part of their marital strife came from their very different ambition for their son. Keke recognized that Soso, as Joseph Stalin was known as a child, was highly intelligent and wanted him to become a Russian Orthodox priest; thus, she made every effort to get him an education. On the other hand, Beso, who was a cobbler, felt that working-class life was good enough for his son.

Education

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 a job at a women's clothing shop.

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

Joseph Stalin's 1912 arrest card
Joseph Stalin's 1912 arrest card. 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.

After having joined the revolutionary underground, Stalin went into hiding using the alias “Koba.” Nevertheless, the police captured Stalin in 1902 and exiled him to Siberia for the first time in 1903. When free from prison, Stalin continued to support the revolution and helped organize peasants in the 1905 Russian Revolution against Czar Nicholas II. Stalin would be arrested and exiled seven times and escape six times between 1902 and 1913.

Between getting arrested, Stalin married Ekaterine Svanidze, a sister of a classmate from seminary, in 1904. They had one son, Yacov, before Ekaterine died of typhus 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.

Vladimir Lenin

Stalin's commitment to the party intensified when he met Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, head of the Bolsheviks in 1905. Lenin recognized Stalin's potential and encouraged him. After that, Stalin held the Bolsheviks in any way he could, including committing several robberies to raise funds.

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'

While writing for the revolution while still in exile in 1912, Stalin first signed an article "Stalin," which translates to "steel man," for the power it connotes. This would continue to be a frequent pen name and, after the successful Russian Revolution in October 1917, his surname. (Stalin would continue to use aliases throughout the rest of his life, though the world would know him as Joseph Stalin.)

1917 Russian Revolution

Stalin missed much of the activity leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917 because he was exiled to Siberia from 1913–1917.

Upon his release in March 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

Lenin and Stalin, however, wanted to topple the provisional government and install a communist one controlled by the Bolsheviks. Feeling that the country was ready for another revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks began a nearly bloodless coup on October 25, 1917. In just two days, the Bolsheviks had taken over Petrograd, the capital of Russia, and thus became the leaders of the country.

Not everyone was happy with the Bolsheviks ruling the country, however. Russia was thrust immediately into civil war as the Red Army (the Bolshevik forces) battled the White Army (made up of various anti-Bolshevik factions). The Russian Civil War lasted until 1921.

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.

Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin
Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin in 1919. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Trotsky was far more popular than Stalin, so Stalin was given the less public role of general secretary of the Communist Party in 1922. A persuasive orator, Trotsky maintained a visible presence in foreign affairs and was perceived by many as the heir apparent.

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

Head of the Communist Party

Tensions between Stalin and Trotsky increased when Lenin's health began to fail in 1922 with the first of several strokes, raising the difficult question of who would be Lenin’s successor. From his sickbed, Lenin had advocated for shared power and maintained this vision until his death on January 21, 1924.

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.

Five Year Plans, Famine

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.

In the name of Communism, Stalin seized assets, including farms and factories, and reorganized the economy. However, these efforts often led to less efficient production, ensuring that mass starvation swept the countryside.

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 first Five Year Plan (1928–1932) was declared completed a year early and the second Five Year Plan (1933–1937) was launched with equally disastrous results. A third Five Year began in 1938 but was interrupted by World War II in 1941.

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

Cult of Personality

Joseph Stalin with a child who was later sent to a labor camp
Joseph Stalin with a child who was later sent to a labor camp. Henry Guttmann Collection / Hulton Archive / 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.

However, with millions of people dying, statues and tales of heroics could only go so far. Thus, Stalin made it a policy that showing anything less than complete devotion was punishable by exile or death. Going beyond that, Stalin eradicated any form of dissent or competition.

No Outside Influences, No Free Press

Not only did Stalin readily arrest anyone remotely suspected of having a different view, but he also closed religious institutions and confiscated church lands during his reorganization of the Soviet Union. Books and music that were not to Stalin's standards were banned as well, virtually eliminating the possibility of outside influences.

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.

Second Wife and Family

In 1919, Stalin married Nadezhda (Nadya) Alliluyeva, his secretary and fellow Bolshevik. Stalin had become close with Nadya's family, many of whom were active in the revolution and would go on to hold important positions under Stalin’s government. The young revolutionary captivated Nadya and together they would have two children: a son Vasily in 1921 and a daughter Svetlana in 1926.

As carefully as Stalin controlled his public image, he could not escape the criticism of his wife Nadya, one of the few bold enough to stand up to him. Nadya often protested his deadly policies and found herself at the receiving end of Stalin's verbal and physical abuse.

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

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.

Kerov was assassinated in 1934 and Stalin, who most believe was responsible, used Kerov's death to extol the dangers of the anti-communist movement and tighten his grip on Soviet politics. Thus began the period known as the Great Terror.

Few leaders have culled their ranks as dramatically as Stalin did during the Great Terror of the 1930s. He targeted members of his cabinet and government, soldiers, clergy, intellectuals, or anyone else he deemed suspect.

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 from the government.

During the Great Terror, widespread paranoia reigned among citizens, who were encouraged to turn each other in. Those captured often pointed fingers at neighbors or co-workers in hopes of saving their own lives. Farcical show trials publicly confirmed the guilt of the accused and ensured that family members of those accused would remain socially ostracized—if they managed to evade arrest.

The military was particularly decimated by the Great Terror since Stalin perceived a military coup as the greatest threat. With World War II on the horizon, this purging of the military leadership would later prove a severe detriment to the Soviet Union’s military effectiveness.

While the estimates of death tolls vary greatly, the lowest numbers credit Stalin with killing 20 million people 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 Hitler Sign a Non-Aggression Pact

The non-aggression pact signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany
The non-aggression pact signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

By 1939, Adolf Hitler was a powerful threat to Europe and Stalin could not help but be concerned. While Hitler was opposed to communism and had little regard for Eastern Europeans, he appreciated that Stalin represented a formidable force and the two signed a non-aggression pact in 1939.

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

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.

However, before the Allies could come help, the German army swept eastward through the Soviet Union. Initially, some Soviet residents were relieved when the German army invaded, thinking that German rule had to be an improvement over Stalinism. Unfortunately, the Germans were merciless in their occupation and ravaged the territory they conquered.

Scorched Earth Policy

Stalin, who was determined to stop the German army’s invasion at any cost, employed a "scorched earth" policy. This entailed burning all farms fields and villages in the path of the advancing Germany army to prevent German soldiers from living off the land. Stalin hoped that, without the ability to pillage, the German army’s supply line would run so thin that the invasion would be forced to stop. Unfortunately, this scorched earth policy also meant the destruction of the homes and livelihoods of Russian people, creating massive numbers of homeless refugees.

It was the harsh Soviet winter that really slowed down the advancing Germany army, leading to some of the bloodiest battles of World War II. However, to force a German retreat, Stalin needed greater assistance. Although Stalin began to receive American equipment in 1942, what he really wanted was Allied troops deployed to the Eastern Front. The fact that this never happened infuriated Stalin and increased the resentment between Stalin and his allies.

Nuclear Weapons and the End of the War

Another rift in the relationship between Stalin and the Allies came when the United States secretly developed the nuclear bomb. The mistrust between the Soviet Union and the United States was obvious when the U.S. refused to share the technology with the Soviet Union, causing Stalin to launch his own nuclear weapons program.

With supplies provided by the Allies, Stalin was able to turn the tide at the Battle of Stalingrad 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 1945.

The Cold War Begins

Once World War II ended, the task of rebuilding Europe remained. While the United States and the United Kingdom sought stability, Stalin had no desire to cede the territory he had conquered during the war. Therefore, Stalin claimed the territory he had liberated from Germany as part of the Soviet empire.

Under Stalin’s tutelage, Communist parties took control of each country’s government, cut off all communication with the West, and became official Soviet satellite states.

While the Allies were unwilling to launch a full-scale war against Stalin, U.S. President Harry Truman recognized that Stalin could not go unchecked. In response to Stalin's domination of Eastern Europe, Truman issued the Truman Doctrine in 1947, in which the United States pledged to help nations at risk of being overtaken by communists. It was immediately enacted to thwart Stalin in Greece and Turkey, which would ultimately remain independent throughout the Cold War.

The Berlin Blockade and Airlift

Stalin again challenged the Allies in 1948 when he attempted to seize control of Berlin, a city that had been divided among the victors of World War II. Stalin had already seized East Germany and severed it from the West as part of his post-war conquest. Hoping to claim the entire capital, which was located entirely within East Germany, Stalin blockaded the city in an attempt to force the other Allies to abandon their sectors of Berlin.

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.

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 imminent. The Cold War ended only with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Death

Joseph Stalin's body lying in state
Joseph Stalin's body lying in state. Keystone / Getty Images

In his final years, Stalin tried to reshape his image to that of a man of peace. He turned his attention to rebuilding the Soviet Union and invested in many domestic projects, such as bridges and canals—most, however, were never completed.

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.

Stalin maintained his cult of personality even after his death. Like Lenin before him, Stalin’s body was embalmed and put on public 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.

Legacy

It took several years for the Communist party to replace Stalin; in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev took over. Khrushchev broke the secrecy regarding Stalin’s atrocities and led the Soviet Union in a period of "de-Stalinization," which included beginning to account for the catastrophic deaths under Stalin and acknowledging the flaws in his policies.

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.

With these new-found truths about Stalin’s reign, it was time to stop revering the man who had murdered millions. Pictures and statues of Stalin were gradually removed, and in 1961 the city of Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd.

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

Sources

  • Rappaport, Helen. "Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion." Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 1999.
  • Radzinsky, Edvard. "Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives." New York: Doubleday, 1996.
  • Service, Robert. "Stalin: A Biography." Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2005.