Please update your browser

You're using a version of Internet Explorer that isn't supported by Questia.
To get a better experience, go to one of these sites and get the latest
version of your preferred browser:

Joseph Stalin

Stalin, Joseph Vissarionovich

Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (stä´lĬn, Rus. vĬsəryô´nəvĬch stä´lyĬn), 1879–1953, Soviet Communist leader and head of the USSR from the death of V. I. Lenin (1924) until his own death, b. Gori, Georgia. His real name was Dzhugashvili (also spelled Dzugashvili or Djugashvili); he adopted the name Stalin ( "man of steel" ) about 1913.

Early Career

The son of a shoemaker, Stalin studied (1894–99) for the priesthood at the theological seminary at Tiflis, but was expelled. While still a divinity student, he became a convert to Marxism and joined the Social Democratic party in the Caucasus. He became a disciple of Lenin after the split (1903) of the party into factions of Bolshevism and Menshevism.

Stalin attended party congresses abroad (at Stockholm in 1906 and at London in 1907), but unlike Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and other revolutionists he did not choose prolonged exile abroad. Under the alias of Koba, taken from the name of a famous Georgian outlaw, he remained in the Caucasus. He was especially active in the party press. Between 1902 and 1913 he was arrested five times and each time escaped.

In 1911 he left the Caucasus for St. Petersburg, where in 1912 he became one of the first editors of Pravda [truth], then a small paper devoted to doctrinal disputes, later the official daily of the Communist party of the USSR. Stalin was arrested in 1913 and was exiled for life to N Siberia, where he remained until an amnesty was granted after the February Revolution of 1917. Back in St. Petersburg (by then, renamed Petrograd), he edited Pravda jointly with Lev Kamenev.

Rise to Power

After the October Revolution of 1917, Stalin, already a member of the central committee since 1912, entered the Soviet cabinet as people's commissar for nationalities and began to emerge as a leader of the new regime. During the civil war from 1918 to 1920 he played an important administrative role on the military fronts and in the capital. He was elected (1922) general secretary of the central committee of the party, enabling him to control the rank-and-file members and to build an apparatus loyal to him.

Stalin's significance in the revolutionary movement and his relation to Lenin have been subjects of great controversy. He was highly regarded by Lenin as an administrator but not as a theoretician or leader. Toward the end of his illness, which began in 1922, Lenin wrote a testament in which he strongly criticized Stalin's arbitrary conduct as general secretary and recommended that he be removed. However, he died before any action could be taken, and the testament was suppressed.

On Lenin's death, Stalin, Kamenev, and Grigori Zinoviev formed a triumvirate of successors allied against Trotsky, who was a strong contender to replace Lenin. After Trotsky was ousted (1925) as commissar of war, Stalin, now allied with Nikolai Bukharin, turned on Kamenev and Zinoviev. In a desperate attempt to counter Stalin's power, Zinoviev and Kamenev joined forces with Trotsky. Their efforts failed and they were forced to resign from the central committee of the Communist party. Stalin subsequently broke with Bukharin and engineered his fall from power.

A primary issue around which these party struggles centered was the course of the Russian economy. The right wing, led by Bukharin, favored granting concessions to the peasantry and continuing Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP). The left, represented by Kamenev and Zinoviev, wished to proceed with industrialization on a large scale at the expense of the peasants. Stalin's position wavered, depending on the political situation, and the NEP continued until 1928 with considerable success. Then Stalin reversed this policy and inaugurated collectivization of agriculture and the Five-Year Plan. Ruthless measures were taken against the kulaks, the farmers who had risen to prosperity under the NEP.

Soviet Leader

Prewar Years

The political and cultural aims of Stalin's regime were to identify the totalitarian rule of the Communist party with stability and legitimacy. The basic Marxist tenet of the ultimate "withering away" of the state was all but repudiated. Instead the state was glorified. The shift to the right was also manifest in the reorganization of the armed forces along disciplinarian lines reminiscent of the reign of Czar Nicholas I; in the official return to conservative divorce and abortion laws; in the gradual replacement of intransigent measures against the Russian Orthodox Church by a policy that made the church an instrument of the state; in the abandonment of experimental education in favor of rigid instruction; in the insistence on political criteria in the arts; and, most important, in the rebirth of nationalism and the mounting distrust of the West and of internationalism.

Stalin maintained that his program of consolidating "socialism in one country," although demanding immense sacrifice and discipline, would render the USSR immune to attacks by capitalist nations and would demonstrate the superiority of the socialist system. He thus repudiated, for the time being, the role of the Soviet Union as torchbearer of world revolution.

This process was accompanied by repressive measures and terror, which led to the collectivization famines (1930–33) and political purges of the 1930s. Stalin made his dictatorship absolute by liquidating all opposition within the party. The murder (1934) of S. M. Kirov, Stalin's lieutenant, led to prosecutions for an alleged plot—vast, Trotsky-inspired, and aided by Nazi Germany—to overthrow Stalin's government. In the purge trials many old Bolsheviks, including Kamenev, Zinoviev, Aleksey Rykov, and Bukharin, were accused, pleaded guilty, and were executed.

The purges extended even to the head of the secret police, G. G. Yagoda, and to some of the highest army officers, notably Marshal Tukhachevsky. The terror reached its height under the Yezhovshchina, the period (1937–38) when N. I. Yezhov directed the secret police. As the purges drew to a close (1939), the efforts of the secret police were concentrated on eliminating those elements of the population that might be disloyal in case of war. The Soviet system of forced labor camps, the Gulag, was hugely expanded during this period.

In internal policy, Stalin promulgated a new constitution in 1936 (see Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Although it contained symbols of democratic institutions, effective political power was reserved to the Communist party as the vanguard of the working people. Although it reaffirmed the Soviet principle of autonomy for the various nationalities, the constitution in effect made it impossible for republics or other national groups to secede from the union.

Wartime and After

Until 1934, Stalin had pursued the policy, initiated by the Treaty of Rapallo (see Rapallo, Treaty of, of friendship with Germany. After Adolf Hitler became (1933) chancellor of Germany, Stalin strove for international acceptance and cooperation, joining (1934) the League of Nations and attempting a rapprochement with Great Britain and France. The failure of such a rapprochement and the growing danger of war led Stalin to conciliate Hitler.

The nonaggression pact with Germany (Aug., 1939) was designed to keep the USSR out of World War II. The territorial concessions and strategic advantages granted the Soviet Union by Germany at the expense of other East European nations contributed to Stalin's underestimation of the German threat. The Nazi invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, took Stalin—who in May had taken over the premiership from V. M. Molotov—by surprise; it temporarily paralyzed his leadership and nearly led to the collapse of the Soviet army.

The extent to which Stalin as a military leader subsequently contributed to Soviet victory has been fiercely debated among Soviet and Western authors; his forceful leadership was probably a greater asset than his military capability. He directed the war effort from the Kremlin, where he remained when the rest of the government was evacuated. He was voted the rank of marshal of the Soviet Union (1943) and of generalissimo (1945).

At the Tehran Conference (1943) and the Yalta Conference (1945) with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and at the Potsdam Conference (1945), Stalin proved an astute diplomat. His diplomatic skill led to the recognition by the Western powers of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Having further strengthened his personal power in the course of World War II, Stalin used it ruthlessly to consolidate his control within the Soviet Union and the emerging Soviet empire against what he perceived as renewed capitalist threats. Always suspicious of Communist movements outside his control, he tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the Chinese Communists from taking power after World War II and broke with Josip Broz Tito in 1948 over the question of Yugoslavia's independent Communist policies.

Stalin's paranoia during the last years of his life led to increased repression and persecution of his closest collaborators, reminiscent of the purges of the 1930s. His public appearances, which had always been rare, became even less frequent in the late 1940s and early 50s. His remoteness only stimulated the public worship bestowed upon him, which verged on apotheosis.

Stalin died Mar. 5, 1953, of a cerebral hemorrhage. His body was entombed next to Lenin's in the mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow. Little is known of Stalin's private life except that he married twice and that both wives died (the second, Nadezhda Sergeyevna Alliluyeva, by suicide in 1932). Yakov, his son by his first wife, died in Nazi captivity. He had a son and a daughter by his second wife. His son, Vasily, was an officer in the Soviet air force before his death in 1962. His daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, defected to the United States in 1967.

Denunciation

At the 20th All-Union Party Congress in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders attacked the cult of Stalin, confirming many accusations long current outside the USSR. They did not repudiate Stalin's economic policies, but accused him of tyranny and terror, falsification of history, and self-glorification. In 1961 the 22d Party Congress voted to remove Stalin's body from the Lenin mausoleum; he was then interred in the heroes' cemetery near the Kremlin wall. The term Stalinist, first used to distinguish Stalin's policies from those of Trotsky and others, came to mean a brand of Communism that was both national and repressive. Since Stalin's death the tyrannical implications of the term have become primary.

Bibliography

Stalin's writings form no cohesive body of political theory, although he claimed to represent the pure interpretation of Leninism and Marxism. Among Stalin's writings translated into English are Leninism (tr., 2 vol., 1928–33), Problems of Leninism (tr. 1934), The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union (tr. 1945), Stalin's Works (tr. 1952–55), and other collections of speeches, articles, and reports.

There are numerous biographies of Stalin, some adulatory, such as that of H. Barbusse (tr. 1935), some severely critical of him, such as that by Trotsky (tr. 1946, rev. ed. 1967). See A. Orlov, The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes (1953); M. D. Shulman, Stalin's Foreign Policy Reappraised (1963); R. C. Tucker, Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879–1929 (1973) and Stalin in Power (1990); A. B. Ulam, Stalin: The Man and His Era (1973, repr. 1989); G. Urban, Stalinism (1982); A. E. Arthur, Stalin and His Times (1986); A. DeJonge, Stalin and the Shaping of the Soviet Union (1986); R. H. McNeal, Stalin (1988); R. A. Medvedev, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (2d ed. 1989); K. N. Cameron, Stalin (1989); R. Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (1991) and Stalin: Breaker of Nations (1991); D. Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy (1991); E. Radzinsky, Stalin (1996); S. Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism (1999); M. Amis, Koba the Dread (2003); S. Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004); R. J. Overy, The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia (2004); R. Service, Stalin: A Biography (2005).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin: A Study in Twentieth-Century Revolutionary Patriotism
Erik Van Ree.
Routledge Courzon, 2002
Stalin and the Soviet Union
Stephen J. Lee.
Routledge, 1999
Stalin and Stalinism
Alan Wood.
Routledge, 2005 (2nd edition)
Between Churchill and Stalin: The Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the Origins of the Grand Alliance
Steven Merritt Miner.
University of North Carolina Press, 1988
Stalin's Drive to the West, 1938-1945: The Origins of the Cold War
R. C. Raack.
Stanford University Press, 1995
Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt Divide Europe
Remi Nadeau.
Praeger Publishers, 1990
Stalin's Holy War: Religion, Nationalism, and Alliance Politics, 1941-1945
Steven Merritt Miner.
University of North Carolina Press, 2003
The Sorcerer as Apprentice: Stalin as Commissar of Nationalities, 1917-1924
Stephen Blank.
Greenwood Press, 1994
Poisoned Arrows: The Stalin-Choibalsan Mongolian Massacres, 1921-1941
Shagdariin Sandag; Harry H. Kendall.
Westview Press, 2000
The Anti-Stalin Campaign and International Communism: A Selection of Documents
Russian Institute.
Columbia University Press, 1956
Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945-1953
Yoram Gorlizki; Oleg Khlevniuk.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Stalin's Kampf: Joseph Stalin's Credo
M. R. Werner; Joseph Stalin.
Howell, Soskin, 1940
The Mystery of Stalin: Paul Wingrove Examines the Starkly Different Interpretations That Seek to Explain the Career of Joseph Stalin, Who Died Fifty Years Ago This Month. (Cross Current)
Wingrove, Paul.
History Today, Vol. 53, No. 3, March 2003
Search for more books and articles on Joseph Stalin