Josif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (December 21, 1879 – March 5, 1953), better known as Joseph Stalin (Iosif Stalin is a stricter but seldom used transliteration) was the second leader of the Soviet Union. He was also known as Koba (also a Georgian folk hero; see: Koba). The name Stalin (derived from combining Russian stal, “steel” with Lenin) originally was a conspiratorial nickname; however, it stuck with him and he continued to call himself Stalin after the Russian Revolution. Stalin is also reported to have used at least a dozen other names for the purpose of secret communications, but for obvious reasons most of them remain unknown.
Widely regarded as a tyrant, Stalin was responsible for massive repression of his people. However, many in the former Soviet Union remember his leadership for advances in technologies and victory in the World War 2. Many Russians, especially among the elderly, see Stalin as a national hero and a great leader.
Childhood and early years
Born in Gori, Georgia to illiterate peasant parents (who had been serfs at birth), his harsh spirit has been blamed by some on severe beatings by his father, inspiring vengeful feelings towards anyone in a position to wield power over him (perhaps, it is speculated, also a reason he became a revolutionary). His mother set him on a path to become a priest, and he studied Russian Orthodox Christianity until he was nearly twenty.
His involvement with the socialist movement began at seminary school, from which he was expelled in 1899. From then on he worked for a decade with the political underground in the Caucasus, facing repeated arrest 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.
Rise to power
Initially opposed to the overthrow of Aleksandr Kerensky’s provisional government in the Russian Revolution of 1917, Stalin was won over to Lenin’s position following the latter’s return from exile in April, but played only a secondary role in the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power on November 7. He was political officer of southern soviet army during Polish-Soviet war. Stalin spent his first years after the Revolution in a number of senior administrative posts within the government and party apparatus, becoming in April 1922 general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, a post which he subsequently built up into the most powerful in the country.
After Lenin’s death in January 1924, a triumvirate of Stalin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev governed the party, placing themselves ideologically between Trotsky (on the left wing of the party) and Bukharin (on the right).
During this period, Stalin advanced the policy of building Socialism in One Country, in contrast to Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution and prioritisation of revolution in other countries. Stalin would quickly 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. From then on, Stalin can be said to have exercised control over the party and the country, although this was not complete until the Great Purge of 1936-1938.
Stalin and Changes in Soviet Society
Stalin replaced Lenin’s market socialist New Economic Policy with a system of centrally-ordained Five-Year Plans, which called for a highly ambitious program of state guided crash industrialization, and collectivization of agriculture. In spite of early breakdowns and failures, the first two Five-Year Plans achieved rapid industrialisation from a very low economic base. Russia, generally ranked as the poorest nation in Europe before 1914, 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 regime financed industrialisation by both restraining consumption on the part of ordinary Soviet citizens, to ensure capital went for re-investment into industry, and by ruthless extraction of wealth from the peasantry.
Stalin’s regime moved to force collectivisation of agriculture. The theory behind collectivisation was that it would replace the small-scale un-mechanised and inefficient farms, that were then commonplace in the Soviet Union, with large-scale mechanised farms that would produce food far more efficiently.
Theoretically, landless peasants were to be the biggest beneficiaries from collectivisation, it promised an opportunity to take an equal share in the labour, and in its rewards. For those with property, however, collectivisation meant giving it up to the collective farms and selling most of the food that they produced at artificially low prices (set by the state) with only the bare minimum left for themselves.
Collectivisation meant the destruction of a centuries-old way of life, and alienation from control of the land and its produce. Collectivisation also meant a drastic drop in living standards for many peasants, and it faced widespread and often violent resistance among the peasantry.
In an attempt to overcome this resistance Stalin’s regime used shock brigades to coerce reluctant peasants into joining the collective farms between 1929 and 1933 . In response to this many peasants preferred to destroy their animals rather than give them over to collective farms, which produced a major drop in food production.
Stalin blamed this drop in food production on Kulaks (rich peasants) who he believed were capitalistic parasites who were organising resistance to collectivisation. All Kulaks who resisted collectivisation were to be shot, transported to Gulag prison camps or deported to remote areas of the country. In reality however, the term “Kulak” was a loose term to describe anyone who opposed collectivisation, which included many peasants who were anything but rich.
Most historians agree that the disruption caused by 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, at a time when the Soviet Union continued to export millions of tonnes of grain on world markets.
Stalin’s regime placed heavy emphasis on the provision of basic 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 decreased. Education was also dramatically expanded, with many more Russians learning to read and write, and higher education expanded. The generation that grew up under Stalin also saw a major expansion in job opportunities, especially for women.
Stalin consolidated near-absolute power afterwards with the Great Purge against his suspected political and ideological opponents, most notably the old Bolshevik cadres. Measures used against them ranged from imprisonment in work camps of the Gulag prison administration to execution after show trials or assassination (such as that of Trotsky and, some allege, Leningrad party chief Sergei Kirov). Thousands of people merely suspected of opposing Stalin’s regime were killed or imprisoned (often using Article 58 in which people could be imprisoned for “anti-Soviet activities). Stalin is said to have personally signed 40,000 death warrants of suspected opponents of the regime.
During this period, the practice of mass arrest, torture, and imprisonment or execution without trial of anyone suspected by the secret police of opposing Stalin’s regime became commonplace. By the KGB’s own estimates, 681,692 people were shot during 1937-38 (although many historians think that this was an undercount) and millions of people were transported to Gulag work camps.
Several show trials were held in Moscow to serve as examples for the trials that local courts were expected to carry out elsewere in 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 two members of the “Old Bolsheviks” (Lenin’s Politburo) now remained – Stalin himself and his foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov.
It is believed by most historians that with the famines, forced migrations, state terrorism, prison and labor camp mortality and political purges, Stalin and his colleagues were responsible for the deaths of millions. How many millons died under Stalin is greatly disputed. Although no official figures have been released by the Soviet or Russian governments, most estimates put the figure at between eight and twenty million. Comparison of the 1926-39 census results suggests 5-10 million deaths in excess of what would be normal in the period, mostly through famine in 1931-34. The highest estimates put the figure as high as 50 million from the 1920s to the 1950s.
World War 2
In August 1939 Stalin agreed to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany which divided Eastern Europe into the two powers’ respective spheres of influence. In June 1941, however, Hitler broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Stalin had not expected this 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 modernize 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.
The Nazis initially made huge advances, capturing or killing hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops. The earlier execution of many of the Red Army’s experienced generals in the Red Army had a severely negative effect on Russia’s ability to organise defences. 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 stated that even though 350,000 troops were killed in German attacks so far, that the Germans have lost 4.5 million soldiers (a wildly false lie) and that Soviet victory was near. The Soviet Red Army did in fact put up fierce resistance, but during the war’s early stages was largely ineffective against the better-equipped and trained Nazi forces until the invaders were halted and then driven back before Moscow (December 1941).
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. 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 starvation and suffering among the civilian population that was left behind.
The Soviets bore the brunt of civilian and military losses in World War 2. Between 21 and 28 million Soviets, most of them civilians, died in the “Great Patriotic War”, as the Soviets called the German-Soviet conflict. Civilians were rounded up and burned or shot in many cities occupied by the Nazis. The Nazis considered Slavs to be “sub-human”, ranking the killings in the eyes of many as ethnically targeted mass murder, or genocide. The conflict left a huge deficit of men of the wartime fighting-age generation in Russia. As a result, to this day, World War 2 is remembered very vividly in Russia, and May 9, Victory Day, is one of its biggest national holidays.
Following World War 2 Stalin’s regime installed friendly Communist-led satellite governments in the countries that the Soviet army had occupied, including Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, the later “Communist Bloc” allied from 1955 in the Warsaw Pact. Stalin saw this as a necessary step to protect the Soviet Union, and ensure that it was surrounded by countries with freindly “puppet” governments, to act as a “buffer” against any future invaders, a reversal of inter-war western hopes for a sympathetic Eastern European Cordon sanitaire against Communism.
But this action convinced many in the west that the Soviet Union intended to spread communism across the world. The relations between the Soviet Union and its former World War 2 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.
At home Stalin presented himself as a great wartime leader who had led the USSR to victory against the Germans. Internally his repressive policies continued, but never reached the extremes of the 1930s. Stalin had, according to some, prepared a new wave of arrests and executions aimed at “cosmopolitans,” a code word for Jews, in 1953, but died before implementing his plans.
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. He died four days later, on March 5, 1953, at the age of 73. Officially, the cause of death was listed as a cerebral hemorrhage. His body was left in state in Lenin’s Tomb until October 31, 1961. The political memoirs of Vyacheslav Molotov, published in 1993, claimed Beria had boasted to Molotov that he poisoned Stalin. After his death his body was embalmed and put on display with Lenin’s. However, anti-Stalinists quickly removed his body and buried it.
Policies and accomplishments
Under Stalin the Soviet Union was industrialized to the point that by the time of World War 2 the Soviet industrial-military complex was able to help resist the German invasion. Unfortunately, this had been achieved at a staggering cost in human lives.
While the social and economic transformations over which he presided laid the foundations for the USSR’s emergence as a global superpower, much of Stalin’s conduct of Soviet affairs was subsequently repudiated by his successors in the Communist Party leadership, notably in his denunciation by Khrushchev in February 1956. His successors were not, on the other hand, able to wean themselves from the basic principles on which Stalin based his rule — the political monopoly of the Communist Party presiding over a command economy, relying on force to maintain its position at home and abroad.