Quill and Ink Joseph Stalin
Dictator of the Soviet Union

1879-1953




Stalin, pronounced STAH lihn, Joseph, was dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) from 1929 until 1953. He rose from bitter poverty to become ruler of a country that covered about a sixth of the world's land area.

Stalin ruled by terror during most of his years as dictator. He allowed no one to oppose his decisions. Stalin executed or jailed most of those who had helped him rise to power because he feared they might threaten his rule.

Stalin also was responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet peasants who opposed his program of collective agriculture (government control of farms). Under Stalin, the Soviet Union operated a worldwide network of Communist parties. By the time he died, Communism had spread to 11 other countries. His style of government became known as Stalinism and continued to influence many governments.

The Soviet people had cause to hate Stalin, and much of the world feared him. But he changed the Soviet Union from an undeveloped country into one of the world's great industrial and military powers. In World War II (1939-1945), the Soviet Union was an ally of the United States and Great Britain against Germany. But Stalin sharply opposed and, on occasion, betrayed his allies even before World War II was over. The last years that Stalin ruled the Soviet Union were marked by the Cold War, in which many non-Communist nations banded together to halt the spread of Communism.

Stalin had little personal charm, and could be brutal to even his closest friends. He seemed unable to feel pity. He could not take criticism, and he never forgave an opponent. Few dictators have demanded such terrible sacrifices from their own people.

After Stalin became dictator, he had Soviet histories rewritten to make his role in past events appear far greater than it really was. In 1938, he helped write an official history of the Communist Party. Stalin had not played a leading part in the revolution of November 1917 (October by the old Russian calendar), which brought Communism to Russia. V.I. Lenin led this revolution, which is known as the October Revolution, and set up the world's first Communist government. But in his history, Stalin pictured himself as Lenin's chief assistant in the revolution.

Stalin died in 1953. He was honored by having his body placed beside that of Lenin in a huge tomb in Red Square in Moscow. In 1956, Nikita S. Khrushchev strongly criticized Stalin for his terrible crimes against loyal Communists. Later, in 1961, the government renamed many cities, towns, and factories that had been named for Stalin. Stalin's body was taken from the tomb and buried in a simple grave nearby.

Early life

Boyhood and education. Stalin was born on Dec. 21, 1879, in Gori, a town near Tbilisi in Georgia, a mountainous area in what was the southwestern part of the Russian empire. His real name was Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili. In 1913, he adopted the name Stalin from a Russian word that means man of steel.

Little is known about Stalin's early life. His father, Vissarion Ivanovich Djugashvili, was an unsuccessful village shoemaker. He is said to have been a drunkard who was cruel to his young son. Stalin's mother, Ekaterina Gheladze Djugashvili, became a washerwoman to help support the family. The Djugashvilis lived in a small shack. The first three children of the family died shortly after birth, and Stalin grew up as an only child. When Stalin was young, his father left the family and went to nearby Tbilisi to work in a shoe factory. The boy had smallpox when he was 6 or 7, and the disease scarred his face for life.

In 1888, at great sacrifice, Stalin's mother sent him to a little church school in Gori. He spent five years there and was a bright student. He then received a scholarship at the religious seminary in Tbilisi. Stalin entered this school in 1894 to study for the priesthood in the Georgian Orthodox Church. At this time, Stalin became interested in the ideas of Karl Marx, a German social philosopher. The people of Tbilisi knew little of Marx and his theories about revolution. But political exiles from Moscow and St. Petersburg were beginning to bring Marxist pamphlets to Tbilisi and other smaller cities.

Czar Alexander III died in 1894, and his son, Nicholas II, became czar. Alexander had ruled Russia with complete power. He closely controlled the press, restricted education, and forbade student organizations. Nicholas continued his father's policies, and Russia made important economic and social progress. However, it was difficult to solve the country's social problems. The peasants were demanding more land. They could not raise enough food for the country on their small farms, and, at times, millions of people faced starvation. The growing class of factory workers was discontented because of long hours and low wages.

In 1898, Stalin joined a secret Marxist revolutionary group. The Tbilisi seminary, like many Russian schools, was a center for the circulation of forbidden revolutionary ideas. In May 1899, Stalin was expelled for not appearing for an examination. His interest in Marxism probably played a part in his dismissal.

Young revolutionist. After Stalin left the seminary, he got a job as a clerk at the Tbilisi Geophysical Observatory. Within a year, he began his career as an active revolutionist. In 1900, Stalin helped organize a small May Day demonstration near Tbilisi. The demonstration was held to protest working conditions.

In March 1901, the czar's secret police arrested a number of socialists in Tbilisi. The police searched Stalin's room, but he was not there and escaped arrest. He left his job and joined the Marxist revolutionary underground movement that was springing up in Russia.

In September 1901, Stalin began to write for a Georgian Marxist journal called Brdzola (The Struggle). By this time, he had read revolutionary articles written by Lenin. Stalin's first writings closely imitated the views of Lenin, but lacked Lenin's style or force. In November 1901, Stalin was formally accepted into the Russian Social Democratic Labor (Marxist) Party.

Using various false names, Stalin carried on underground activity in the Caucasus Mountains region. He organized strikes among workers in the Batum oil fields. He helped start a Social Democratic group in Batum and set up a secret press there.

In 1902, Stalin was arrested and jailed for his revolutionary activities. In March 1903, the several Social Democratic groups of the Caucasus united to form an All-Caucasian Federation. Although Stalin was in prison, the federation elected him to serve on its governing body. In November 1903, he was transferred from prison and exiled to Siberia. Also in 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which included many Social Democratic organizations, split into two major groups. Lenin headed the Bolsheviks, who demanded that party membership be limited to a small body of devoted revolutionists. The other group, the Mensheviks, wanted its membership to represent a wider group of people.

Stalin escaped from Siberia in January 1904. He returned to Tbilisi and joined the Bolsheviks. Stalin met Lenin in Finland in 1905. Between 1906 and 1913, Stalin was arrested and exiled a number of times. He spent 7 of the 10 years between 1907 and 1917 in prison or in exile. In 1912, Stalin was suddenly elevated by Lenin into the small but powerful Central Committee of the Bolshevik party.

In 1913, with Lenin's help, Stalin wrote a long article called "The National Question and Social Democracy." Also in 1913, Stalin was arrested and exiled for the last time. Before his arrest, he served briefly as an editor of Pravda (Truth), the Bolshevik party newspaper.

Germany declared war on Russia in 1914 at the beginning of World War I. Stalin was in exile in Siberia, where he remained until 1917.

By the end of 1916, Russia was suffering badly because of the war. Conditions became steadily worse at home. Food shortages in the capital, Petrograd (St. Petersburg), led to riots and strikes. Finally, on March 15, 1917, Czar Nicholas II gave up his throne. A provisional (temporary) government, run mostly by liberals, was formed the next day. The government released Stalin and other Bolsheviks from exile. They returned to Petrograd on March 25. Stalin took over the editorship of Pravda from Vyacheslav Molotov. Lenin became concerned that Stalin did not strongly oppose the provisional government in Pravda. Lenin arrived in Petrograd from exile three weeks later and criticized Stalin for not taking a strong Bolshevik stand. Lenin launched a radical program for overthrowing the provisional government. This action led to the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917. The month was October in the old Russian calendar, and the Bolshevik take-over is often called the October Revolution.

Rise to power

The Bolshevik revolution. Stalin played an important, but not vital, part in the revolution. Lenin worked most closely with Leon Trotsky in the Bolshevik take-over of the government. After Stalin became dictator of the Soviet Union, he had history books rewritten to say that he had led the revolution with Lenin.

Lenin became head of the new government after the revolution and named Stalin commissar of nationalities. Within a few months, opposition to the new government developed in many parts of the country. Armed uprisings broke out and grew into civil war. Stalin was active on the southern military front. In Stalin's version of history, he repeatedly corrected the mistakes of others. Stalin took credit for a victory at Tsaritsyn, the city later named Stalingrad (now Volgograd). Actually, Stalin's military role there was exaggerated.

During the civil war, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party was renamed the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). Stalin became one of the five members of the newly formed Politburo (Political Bureau), the policymaking body of the party's Central Committee. In 1922, the Communist Party's Central Committee elected Stalin as its general secretary.

Stalin takes over. The Bolsheviks won the civil war in 1920. They then began to rebuild the war-torn country. At first, Lenin and the others were unaware of Stalin's quiet plotting. But by the end of 1922, Stalin's growing power began to disturb Lenin. Before a series of strokes prevented Lenin from working, he wrote a secret note warning that Stalin must be removed as general secretary. He wrote that Stalin was too "rude" in personal relations and abused the power of his office. Because of his illness, however, Lenin was unable to remove Stalin.

Lenin died in 1924. The leading Bolsheviks finally learned of the secret note warning against Stalin, but they ignored it. They accepted Stalin's promise that he would improve his behavior. Instead, Stalin continued to build his own power. He cleverly used this power to destroy his rivals. In December 1929, the party praised Stalin on his 50th birthday. He had become a dictator.

Dictator of the Soviet Union

The five-year plan. In 1928, Stalin started the first of the Soviet Union's five-year plans for economic development. The government began to eliminate private businesses. Production of industrial machinery and farm equipment became more important, and production of clothing and household goods was neglected.

In 1929, Stalin began to collectivize Soviet agriculture. He ended private farming and transferred the control of farms, farm equipment, and livestock to the government. But the farmers resisted his order and destroyed about half of the U.S.S.R.'s livestock and much of its produce. As punishment, Stalin sent about a million families into exile. The destruction of livestock and grain caused widespread starvation. The economy moved forward, but at the cost of millions of lives.

During the 1930's, Stalin adopted a policy of Russification. The minority nationalities in the Soviet Union were subject to increasingly strict control by the government. In 1939, the Soviet Union seized a large part of Poland. In 1940, Soviet troops invaded the Baltic countries -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Stalin tried to destroy the middle classes in these countries. He set up Communist governments and joined them to the Soviet Union.

Rule by terror. Under the czars, the Russian secret police had often arrested revolutionists and sent them into exile without trial. Stalin set up a police system that was far more terrible. Millions of persons were executed or sent to labor camps. Stalin also turned over many industries to the secret police, who forced prisoners to work in them. Fear spread through the U.S.S.R. as neighbors were ordered to spy on one another. The Soviet government broke up families, and it urged children to inform on their parents to the police.

In 1935, Stalin started a purge (elimination) of most of the old Bolsheviks associated with Lenin. During the next few years, he killed anyone who might have threatened his power. He also executed thousands of other Communist Party members, including the chiefs and countless officers of the Soviet army. Stalin achieved his purpose. When he decided to cooperate with the German dictator Adolf Hitler in 1939, there was no one left to oppose his policies. Even when the Soviet Union later suffered terrible military defeats from Hitler's army, no political opposition to Stalin was possible.

After World War II ended in 1945, Lavrenti P. Beria, chief of the secret police, became a leading figure in Stalin's government. Police control grew tighter. The bloody purges went on, but in secret. No one was safe. Even Politburo members and Communist Party leaders were purged and shot in 1949 and 1950. Anti-Semitism, which had been encouraged by Stalin during the 1930's, was now practiced throughout the country.

World War II. By the late 1930's, Adolf Hitler was ready to conquer Europe. Soviet leaders bargained unsuccessfully with the French and the British for a defense agreement against Germany. Then, on Aug. 23, 1939, the U.S.S.R. and Germany suddenly signed a treaty agreeing not to go to war against each other. In a secret part of the treaty, Stalin and Hitler also planned to divide Poland between themselves.

On Sept. 1, 1939, German troops marched into Poland. On September 3, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. World War II had begun. Germany quickly conquered western Poland, and the Soviet Union seized the eastern part. On September 28, Germany and the U.S.S.R. signed a treaty which set the boundaries for the division of Poland. The Soviet Union invaded Finland on Nov. 30, 1939, and, after a bitter struggle, took a large portion of that country.

By December 1940, Hitler began planning an attack on the U.S.S.R. Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain and President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States told Stalin that their secret agents warned of a coming invasion. But Stalin ignored the warnings, as well as those of his own secret service.

In May 1941, Stalin named himself premier of the Soviet Union. Germany invaded the Soviet Union the next month. In spite of the two extra years that Stalin had to get ready for a war, the country was not prepared. Because of Stalin's purge of the army, the U.S.S.R. lacked experienced officers. The country also lacked up-to-date weapons and equipment. The German army approached Moscow, the capital, in October 1941, and many government officials were moved to Kuybyshev (now Samara). Stalin remained in Moscow to give the Soviet people hope and courage. The army finally beat back German attacks on Moscow in the winter of 1941-1942. Stalin reached the height of his popularity during the war.

In March 1943, Stalin took the military title of Marshal of the Soviet Union. Later in 1943, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met at Teheran, Iran. The "Big Three" agreed that the United States, Great Britain, and the U.S.S.R. would work together until Germany was defeated. The three leaders met again early in 1945 at Yalta in the Crimea to discuss the military occupation of Germany after the war.

The Cold War. After the Allies defeated Germany in 1945, Stalin gradually cut off almost all contact between the U.S.S.R. and the West. Stalin used the Soviet army's presence in Eastern Europe to set up Communist governments in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. Churchill said that these countries lay behind the Iron Curtain, a term he used to refer to Soviet barriers against the West. Stalin also tried unsuccessfully to take over Greece, Iran, and Turkey. Many non-Communist nations joined against the Soviet Union and its satellites (countries controlled by the U.S.S.R.) to halt the spread of Communism. This struggle became known as the Cold War.

In June 1945, Germany was divided into four zones, each occupied by American, British, French, or Soviet troops. Berlin, which lay deep in the Soviet zone, was also divided among the four powers. Stalin refused to cooperate in administering Germany, and in 1948, France, Great Britain, and the United States announced plans to combine their zones into the West German Federal Republic (West Germany). To prevent this action, Stalin tried to drive the Allies out of West Berlin by blockading the city. He hoped the blockade would prevent food and supplies from reaching West Berlin. But the Allies set up the Berlin airlift and supplied the city entirely by airplanes for 11 months. Stalin was defeated, and he ended the blockade of Berlin in May 1949. The airlift continued until September 1949.

In 1948, Stalin expelled the Yugoslav Communist party from the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau), an organization of Communist parties in Europe. Josip Broz Tito, the Communist dictator of Yugoslavia, had refused to allow the Soviet Union to run his country. In 1949, Tito declared Yugoslavia's independence of control by Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Stalin's aggressive policies led the West in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a mutual defense organization.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), Stalin supported the Communist North Korean forces that invaded South Korea. Korea had been divided into two parts after World War II. At first, Soviet troops occupied the northern half, and U.S. troops occupied the southern half. Both sides later withdrew their forces. North Korean troops then launched a surprise attack on South Korea to unite the divided country by force. As a result, U.S. troops were sent back to Korea. The war ended a few months after Stalin's death.

Death. Early in 1953, Stalin prepared to replace the top men in the Soviet government. Apparently he was planning another great purge. Then, on March 4, 1953, the Central Committee of the Communist Party announced that Stalin had suffered a brain hemorrhage on March 1. Stalin died in Moscow on March 5, 1953.

Stalinism. Even after Stalin's death, many Communist governments continued to use his style of rule, which became known as Stalinism. Stalinist governments eliminate all opposition by employing terrorism--that is, by threatening or using violence to create widespread fear. These governments maintain total control of the media for propaganda and force economic production without considering market conditions or the needs of workers.

Stalinism thrived in countries behind the Iron Curtain until Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Outside Europe, Mao Zedong set up a Stalinist government in China in 1949. Ho Chi Minh established a Stalinist dictatorship in North Vietnam in 1954, and Kim Il Sung introduced hard-line Stalinist rule in North Korea in 1948. Under Fidel Castro, a government with many characteristics of Stalinism came to power in Cuba in 1959.


SOURCE: IBM 1999 World Book

Contributor: Albert Marrin, Ph.D., Chairman, Department of History, Yeshiva College.

Additional resources

Boffa, Guiseppe. The Stalin Phenomenon. Cornell Univ. Pr., 1992.

Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power. Norton, 1990.

Ulam, Adam B. Stalin. 1973. Reprint. Beacon Pr., 1989.

Whitelaw, Nancy. Josef Stalin. Dillon Pr., 1992. Younger readers.



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