Joseph Stalin: The Deadliest Dictator?
Joseph Stalin was a vicious politician who took center stage during the formative years of the Soviet Union. His prolonged dictatorial control, which lasted from 1924 to 1953, of both the Communist Party and the Soviet Union resulted in one of the most terrible periods the modern world has ever seen.
With the exclusion of his bravery and courageous leadership during WWII, not many positives can be said about the Georgian-born dictator. Joseph Stalin’s direct involvement in the “Great Purge”, which saw close to a million people die, makes him a huge contender for the most brutal dictator of the 20th century.
The article below presents everything that you need to know about the life and brutal dictatorship of Joseph Stalin.
Joseph Stalin’s Childhood
In the town of Gori, Georgia, on December 18, 1878 Joseph Stalin was born to parents Besarion Jughashvili and Ekaterine Geladze. His full name at birth was Losif Vissarionovich (Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili).
Besarion Jughashvili, Stalin’s father, was a cobbler who struggled to put food on the table for his family. His father’s immense financial difficulties forced him into a life of excessive drinking and periodic gambling.
As a young boy, Joseph Stalin, on numerous occasions, suffered at the hands of his father. Besarion was known for severely beating and abusing the young Stalin. And there was hardly anything his mother, Ekaterine Geladze, could do about it. His mother was a hardworking woman who spent most of her time in the cleaning and laundry business.
Right from his birth, Stalin’s mother – a devout Russian Orthodox – had always desired for Stalin to one day become an Orthodox priest. As a result of this, Stalin spent his formative school years in the seminary and church schools. Although he was not particularly interested in studying religion and religious activities for that matter, Stalin proved himself well by excelling in his studies. He also took some amount of interest in art and craft classes as well.
For his early education, Stalin won a scholarship and enrolled at a local church school in Gori from 1888 to 1894. His early education was typically at schools heavily affiliated to churches. For example, he spent some amount of time at as a boarding student at Tiflis Theological Seminary. While at the seminary, Stalin’s interest in issues of revolution, patriotism and nature heightened. He became a problem child for the school authorities because of his incessant reading of works by Karl Marx and other banned books of that time. He constantly dreamed of carrying out revolutionary actions against the Russian monarchy.
His grades and academic performance in general would take a severe hit because of his tendency to get in trouble with the school authorities. Eventually, the seminary had enough of him and he was expelled in 1899 primarily due to his interest and support for atheism and revolutionary activities in the town.
Early Revolutionary Days
After he left the seminary, Stalin proceeded to work as a clerk at Tiflis Observatory. As per the record, his employment at the observatory was the only time Stalin found himself in a form of employment other than his political career.
While at the observatory, Stalin continued to immerse himself deep in underground revolutionaries. He helped organize demonstrations and strikes in the Caucasus. He was particularly busy in the month of May, 1900, celebrating and giving classes about socialism and Marxist ideas. That same year, he charged workers to lay down their tools and take to the streets.
Owing to his instigation of violent clashes with the authorities, he was constantly watched closely by the secret service police – the Okhrana.
After evading the grips of the authorities, Stalin found himself going underground. On May 1, 1901 (May Day), from his hideout, Stalin successfully organized and led a violent protest that involved about 3,000 people.
From then onward, his revolutionary activities skyrocketed, particularly after securing an elected office in the Tiflis Committee for the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP).
Batumi Protest and Exile in Siberia
At the dawn of the 20th century, Stalin relocated to Batumi, a port city in Georgia. Over there, he worked in a refinery owned by the Rothschild. His inclination for protests and causing chaos to the established order had not abated.
He organized his colleagues at the refinery and embarked on a protest that turned sour as police tried to quell it. A number of the protest leaders were arrested, and some suffered differing types of injuries. Stalin then marched a group of people to the prison to secure the forceful release of the arrested protest leaders. One thing led to another and the police fired live rounds at the protesters. Close to a dozen protesters’ lives were lost that day.
Hoping to capitalize on the grief that was in the air, Stalin organized another protest. This time around he was apprehended by the authorities. In 1903, he was sentenced to serve three years in exile in eastern Siberia.
Editor of the “Proletarian Struggle”
Not even the cold and frosty conditions of Siberia could keep Stalin from pursuing his Marxist ideas to the fullest. After serving for some time in exile, he made a daring escape to Tiflis.
From his base in Tiflis, he worked as a co-editor of a local Marxist newspaper – Proleteriatis Brdzola (Proletarian Struggle). Many of his articles called on Georgian Marxists to break away from the Marxists in Russia. His bold utterances caused many RSDLP members to tag him as a traitor to the overall objective of the movement.
Needless to say, cracks in RSDLP became deep as the months rolled by. The RSDLP ended up splintering into two sides – the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks; the latter were led by Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov respectively.
Because Stalin favored a more militaristic approach to getting things done, he took a strong liking to Vladimir Lenin’s faction – the militant Bolsheviks.
Stalin during the Revolution of 1905
After government troops fired at peaceful protesters in St Petersburg during the Revolution of 1905, Stalin rallied his tugs to form the Bolshevik Battle Squad. The upheaval reverberated across the Russian Empire. In Baku for example, Stalin helped to broker peace between Baku’s warring ethnic factions. Amidst this unrest, Stalin was his typical self and used the chaos to carry out several robberies.
He was also able to raise quite some amount of money organizing protection rackets all over Baku. His looted money was an important source of funding for the Bolsheviks.
Revolution of 1917 and Rise to Power
After two major revolutions in 1917, the Bolsheviks successfully forced the Tzar out of power. They also quickly got raid of the Middle-class liberals that acted in the interim capacity. During the Revolution, Stalin was part of the influential trio: Stalin himself, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. This was before the long and bitter civil war that took place from 1917 to 1921.
In the end, the trio emerged out of the conflict victors. They laid down the foundation for the Soviet Union in 1921. Lenin was selected as the leader of the country and the party. His right hand men were Trotsky and Stalin. The trio moved the government from Petrograd to Moscow in March 1918. The Kremlin in Moscow became home to Stalin, Trotsky, Sverdlov, and Lenin.
With his fame on the ascendancy, Stalin was elected Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He also served as the head of the government and the Council of People’s Commissars, also known as “Sovnarkom”.
Years of revolutionary activities had taken a toll on the health of Lenin. In January 1924, Vladimir Lenin passed away. By this time Stalin had strategically placed himself as the heir apparent to Lenin. He had intentionally employed his men to top positions in the party. He did so in order to get their backing when it was time to take control of the country. He expertly outsmarted his rival Trotsky by exiling him out of the country. Stalin’s claim to Lenin’s chair simply could not be questioned because he had a huge power base.
The Great Purge
Upon coming into office around the mid-1920s, Stalin favored organized industrialization by the state over quasi-capitalistic policies that characterized Lenin’s administration. He targeted the peasants and forced about 25 million of them into a collectivized national farming project. Those who resisted got imprisoned or killed.
Along with rebellious peasants, several politicians that he considered a threat to his power suffered horrific fates in prisons called the “Kulaks”. Those that were lucky enough not to be killed were sent to concentration and forced labor camps (the Gulags) up north. Those victims of Stalin’s oppression were worked to exhaustion and their deaths.
Around that same period, a massive famine ripped through large parts of the Union. The state-organized and collectivized way of farming further exacerbated the problem. In Ukraine alone, it has been estimated that over 10 million people died from state-sponsored oppression and starvation.
The deaths and pain were primarily due to Stalin’s refusal to send those hard-hit areas any grains. Instead he exported those grains abroad.
Everyone in the business community, farm managers, journalists, artists, academicians and local politicians were completely terrified of Stalin. His propaganda machinery leveled trumped-up charges against anyone who dared question him.
The farce trials and executions
Stalin used social situations and misfortunes as a cover to rid himself off influential Communist Party members. In an event that had Stalin’s hands written all over it, Sergy Kirov, a top party official, was murdered in December 1934. Stalin would then use Kirov’s death as an excuse to go after people he claimed killed Kirov. The trial was a complete farce. Witnesses were intimidated and forced into confessing crimes that they had no clue about.
After the death of Kirov, Stalin genuinely feared for his life. He claimed that some party members wanted to assassinate him.
By 1936, he had started pointing finger at Zinovyev and Kamenev. The two top officials were tortured and coerced into confessing to the allegations. They were then sentenced to death by firing squad.
By going after key personalities in the police, military, and the business community, Stalin effectively brought the Communist Party under his full control.
With his expertly crafted propaganda machine, he was able to create for himself a devout cult of personality. He even had his name written in the national anthem. Also, he had the Soviet Union’s birth story rewritten in a manner that accentuated his name and role during the 1917 Revolution. Artworks, literature and music in the country were strictly controlled by him.
Joseph Stalin during WWII
Prior to the break out of WWII, the leaders of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany – Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler went into the Nonaggression Pact (the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact). Stalin was counting on Hitler attacking the rest of Western Europe. Were that to happen, the balance of power in Europe would have shifted in favor of the Soviet Union. Going into a pact with Hitler allowed him to ready himself for any attacks that might have come from the east in the form of Japanese Empire. He fortified the capability and the size of his Red Army.
Armed with the August 1939 pact with Stalin, Germany went on to invade Poland, ushering in the beginning of WWII. In September 1939, Stalin, under the pretext of restoring order in Poland, decided to take for himself the remaining territories in Poland.
Shortly after his annexation of parts of Poland, Stalin attacked Finland. The attack was somewhat quelled by the Finns. In the end, the Soviet leader forced Finland to make several stringent concessions under a temporary peace treaty.
With European countries falling like flies at the might of Nazi Germany, Stalin turned his attention to the Baltic countries. He dispatched his Red Army to occupy and annex Romania. He also extended Soviet Union borders by annexing Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.
Emboldened by the slight gains that he was making across Europe, Hitler decided the time was right to take on the Soviets. Hitler’s June 22, 1941 attack on the Soviet Union completely took Stalin by surprise. He appointed himself Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars – head of the government. He also appointed himself Supreme Commander in Chief of the Soviet Union.
The Germans made swift progress and brought several Soviet territories such as Ukraine and Belorussia under their control. As at July 1941, Hitler had begun raining bombs on Moscow. They were close to taking the Moscow completely had it not been for the severe winter conditions.
By 1941, Stalin was left with no choice than to join hands with the West and fight against Hitler. Stalin reverted from a defence strategy to a quick counter-attack against the Germans. He issued an order that forbad soldiers from surrendering. His soldiers were required to fight to the death. Any soldier that fled was quickly executed.
During the war, Stalin placed himself at the helm of economic affairs in the country. He worked extremely hard to increase the Soviet Union’s industrial output. His manufacturing levels were so high that he outperformed all other European countries. His levels were only second to the United States.
He was heavily involved in the Battle of Stalingrad (August 1942 to February 1943) and the Battle of Kursk, both of which he won. And by 1944, Hitler had been driven out of all the Baltic countries. Those territories were firmly in the hands of Stalin. Rather than grant autonomy to those states, Stalin squashed their autonomy.
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The Big Three
All throughout WWII, Stalin’s reputation in the West was quite favorable. He was warmly called “Uncle Joe”. And from 1942 to 1944, he hosted British Prime MKinister Winston Churchill on two occasions in Moscow.
From 1942 to 1946, Stalin, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill formed a very close partnership. The “Big Three”, as they were commonly referred to as, had several meetings during and after WWII. Most famous of these meetings were the Tehran Conference of 1943; the Yalta Conference; and the Potdam of 1945.
During these meetings, Stalin proved himself to be an expert negotiator. Along with his counterparts from the U.S. and Britain, Stalin agreed to a situation where Germany would be broken up after the war. It was also agreed that the Soviet Union would take possession of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia. However, the Mediterranean country, Greece, would go the way of the West.
After Hitler was vanquished in April 1945, Stalin sent about half a million soldiers to face off the Japanese at Manchuria. He defeated the Japanese. Japan would later surrender to the Allied forces on August 8, 1945.
Stalin was part of the Potsdam Conference held in the summer of 1945. With leaders from the U.S. and Britain, the Allied forces divided Germany into four main zones among: Britain, the U.S., France, and the Soviet Union.
After giving assurances that he would not bring Eastern European countries under the influence of the Soviet Union, Stalin did exactly the opposite. He expanded his control to include an addition hundred million people in those countries. He was also successful at preventing those states from leaving the union.
He executed many satellite states’ politicians so as to serve as a warning to others that harbored intentions of leaving. Such was his ruthlessness that 3 percent of the Soviet Union’s population was either in the Gulag system or in some sort of exile, slaving in forced labor camps.
He handpicked Nikita Khrushev from Kiev and brought him to Moscow. Stalin made Khrushchev the Secretary of the Central Committee.
Allied powers become Stalin’s enemies during the Cold War
Post WWII, the relationship between Stalin and the West increasingly got strained. This conflict would go on to become the Cold War.
Stalin was really not enthusiastic about going to war with the West. Instead, he hoped that their mutual pursuit of atomic weapons would serve as a huge deterrent to anyone with the appetite for war. Hence, Stalin continued to invest heavily in the development of atomic weapons. By August 1949, Stalin had successfully tested an atomic bomb at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. From 1949 to 1953, Stalin increased his total military force from about 3 million soldiers to a little bit shy of 5 million.
Stalin was responsible for the June 1948 blockade of Berlin. He did so because the West refused having a unified and demilitarized German state. The West was able to mitigate the blockade by airlifting supplies to Berlin. Stalin ended the blockade in May 1949.
In the early 1950s, Stalin lent his support to North Korean leader and communist Kim II Sung. Stalin gave his approval of Sung’s invasion of the largely capitalist South Korea. This attack sent the two Koreas into warring with each other during the Korean War (1950-1953).
Later Years and Death
Stalin’s later years were filled with increased paranoia. He was suspicious of everyone but himself. As a result of this, Stalin’s reign of terror continued unabated. At some point in time, he even took to persecuting the Jewish community.
On March 5, 1953, Stalin – a dictator who had maintained an iron grip for close to 30 years – gave up the ghost. The cause of his death was believed to be a stroke. Several millions of people across the Soviet Union mourned his death. Despite his brutal reign of terror, Stalin had somehow developed a cult of personality.
The Communist Party embalmed his body, which was later sent to Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow. Up until 1961, Stalin’s body remained in the mausoleum. His final resting place was close to the Kremlin in Moscow. In the aftermath of his death, his cult of personality did not abate. The Georgian-born dictator’s death was mourned by millions across the Soviet Union.
First Wife – Ekaterina “Kato” Svanidze
In 1904, Joseph Stalin and Ekaterina Svanidze got married in what was most likely an arranged one set up by his mother. Svanidze, commonly called “Kato”, was a deeply religious girl from Georgia who plied her trade as a seamstress. Three years into the marriage, Ekaterina died from a severe typhus. She and Stalin bore a child named Jacob (Yakov).
Just like his father, Stalin meted out harsh treatment to Yakov. He was irritated by his son’s soft and submissive nature. And in the 1920s, their relationship was further strained after Yakov attempted to commit suicide.
Did you know?: In WWII, Jacob was taken prisoner by the Germans. Stalin blatantly rejected offers from the Germans to have a negotiation in order to secure the release of Yakov. Tagging him as a traitor to the Soviet Union, Stalin allowed Yakov to die at the hands of the Nazis.
Second Wife – Nadezhda “Nadya” Alliluyeva
Shortly after the Bolsheviks took power, Stalin married Nadezhda Alliluyeva in 1919. The two were drawn to each other due their shared love for Marxist ideas. Commonly called “Nadya”, Nadezhda’s played an influential role during the early years of Bolshevik’s administration. And even when Stalin showed glaring signs of his ruthless behavior, Nadya was the one who tried to calm the nerves of the dictator.
After getting overwhelmed by Stalin’s paranoia and cold-bloodedness, Nadya took her own life in 1932. She was survived by the two children she had with Stalin – Svetlana Allilyeva and Vasily. A decade or so after the death of Stalin, Svetlana defected to the United States in 1967. Her defection came as a huge blow to the Soviets who were by then in an intense Cold War with the U.S.
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