Stalin (born 1879,ruled 1924-1953) ranks with Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot as one of the 20th century's greatest villains. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Russians. Among the victims were women, children and some of his closest friends.
Not everything Stalin did was bad. He forged the Soviet Union into a great nation and helped turn the tide against Hitler in World War II, which benefitted not just Russia but the world as a whole. During the war he was regarded as a friend of the West and was called Uncle Joe in the United States. Stalin was named Time Man of the Year in 1942 and was praised after his death by the New York Times as “one of the great figures of the modern era; a man whose name stands second to none as the organizer and builder of the state structure the world knows as the Soviet Union.” Without him Nazi Germany might have very easily taken over Europe.
Joseph Stalin's original name was Iosif Vissationvich Dzhugasashvili. His took the alias, Stalin, which means "man of steel" in Russian, in 1912 when he was Bolshevik revolutionary. Koba was a popular Stalin nickname. As part of his personality cult he was called the “Greatest Genius of All Times and Nations.”
The modern Russian Communist Party leader Gennadi A. Zyuganov praises Stalin as a great historical figure. Yet Stalin disavowed his son after he was captured by Germans and let him die in POW camp. His wife committed suicide. His daughter defected to the West.
Books: Stalin by Dmitri Volkogonov (Free Press, 1990). Intimate biography by Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Stalin. Like Lenin and Hitler, Stalin didn't write his own memoirs. The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin (Counterpoint, 1999) is a work of fiction.
Stalin's Early Life
Stalin was born in Gori, a village in Georgia, on December 21, 1879. When was seven he came down with small pox, which left his face and body pock-marked for the rest of his life.
Stalin was ashamed of his Georgian ancestry. His father, Vissarion (Beso) Dzhugashvili, was a drunk Georgian cobbler. He died when Stalin was nine. His mother, Ekaterina Ghenladze Dzhugashvili, was a deeply religious daughter of Georgian serfs. After her marriage she supported the family by working as a seamstress and washerwoman.
Stalin's mother hoped her son Joseph would become a priest and throughout her life she was disappointed by her's son's choice in professions. She never learned to speak Russian and even after her son's success had no desire to leave her home in the Caucasus.
Stalin attended an Orthodox Russian seminary in a Tiflis (present-day Tiblisi) with the intention of being trained to be a priest. He was expelled in 1999 for agitation and emerged a militant atheist and petty criminal.
Stalin's Early Life as a Revolutionary
After leaving school, Stalin remained in Tiflis. He held a number of jobs, including newspaper editor. He joined the Tiflis branch of the Russian Social Democrat Party and became a paid agitator who attempted to incite a revolt against the tsar. He edited and distributed revolutionary pamphlets and organized strikes among factory workers.
Stalin caught the attention of Social Democrat leaders who sent him to Baku, where he organized oil workers in Baku during the oil boom in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when oil barons lived in ornate mansion with carved portals while the oil workers lived in hovels. His activities there got him arrested in 1902.
Stalin was exiled to Siberia in 1903 but soon escaped. Between 1902 and 1913 he was arrested and exiled six times and escaped five times and was released once. To avoid arrest during this period he used aliases such as Koba, David, Soso, Chiijikob, Nijeradze and finally Stalin.
Stalin joined the Bolsheviks soon after the Bolshevik party was organized in 1903. He became a party leader in the Caucasus region and attended secret Bolshevik meetings in Finland, Stockholm and London in 1905, 1906 and 1907. At these meeting he caught Lenin's eye. To secure funds the strapped Bolshevik party, 28-year-old Stalin held up the State Bank transport at Tiflis in 1907. He was arrested for his revolutionary activities in early 1908.
In 1912, Stalin was made a members of the Central Committee. He edited the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda ("Truth"), which he claimed he founded, and was arrested again. He soon escaped and was arrested of the sixth time and exiled to a labor camp the Siberian Arctic, where he was unable to escape. He was released when the Kerensky government freed all political prisoners in 1917.
Stalin After the Bolshevik Revolution
After being released from prison, Stalin came to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and worked with Lenin to plan the overthrown of the Kerensky government. It is not known exactly what he did. His name has appeared on only a handful of documents from the period but it is believed he played an important role behind the scenes.
After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Stalin became the people's commissar of nationalities. He served with the Red Army on several fronts, displayed great skill as a strategist and tactician, and drew up some of crazy borders of the present former the Soviet republics to divide and neutralize some of Russia’s ethnic groups to keep them from threatening the state.
In 1918, during the Russian civil war, Stalin commanded the defense of the vital city, Tsaritsyn, which was renamed Stalingrad in his honor in 1925. In 1921, he led an offensive in the Caucasus that seized Georgia for the Communists. In 1919 he became general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and a trusted aide of Lenin.
Stalin's Women and Children
Stalin married his first wife Ekaterina Svanidze, Georgia native, in 1903 when he was 24. She was reportedly a traditional subservient Russia wife. She died of tuberculosis in 1907. Their son, Yakov, lived with his mother's relatives. Stalin was not fond of Yakov. Yakov was murdered by the Nazis at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Stalin barely knew his children or grand children. Yakov reportedly died or was killed after Stalin refused an offer to exchange him for a German officer.
After Stalin escaped from prison he sought refuge in the home of Sergei Alliluyev. Stalin was fond of Alliluyev's 10-year-old daughter Nadya. He used to take Nadya on sleigh rides through the Russia countryside with Alliluyev's other children.
After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Stalin helped secure Nadya, then a 16-year-old beauty, a job as a confidential code clerk in Lenin's private office in Moscow. Over twice her age, Stalin began courting the teenager and the two reportedly became close after he made some bold advances while drunk.
Eleven years after they first met Nadya and Stalin became engaged. She was reportedly attracted to Stalin by his bearish charm and loud jokes. She was a committed revolutionary who helped Stalin advance politically by feeding him secret messages decoded from Lenin's office.
Stalin's Married Life
Stalin and Nadya we wed on March 24, 1919 not long after she became pregnant after she became drunk on rare Georgian Kakhetinsk wine and was moved by Stalin's singing of a folk song about a frail apple tree destroyed in a storm. Nadya's parents were opposed to the wedding.
The wedding took place in the Moscow registry office. The only people present were two witnesses required by law. For their honeymoon they reportedly moved in a small house in the Kremlin formally used as servant's quarters.
Stalin and Nadya had two children: a son Vasily, born in 1920, and a daughter Svetland, born in 1926. Vasily served in the Red air force. Svetland became as close to Stalin as anyone.
Because Stalin had few friends, he and Nadya spent a lot of time together and reportedly quarreled often. Nadya was particularly taken aback by Stalin's use of obscene language and she let her husband know her feelings.
Nadya Leaves Stalin and Commits Suicide
While studying chemistry at a university in Moscow, Nadya learned from her student friends details of mass executions, purge and famines that resulted from her husband's orders. When she confronted him with these charges, he reportedly became so enraged he cursed her and had her friends arrested.
By 1926, Nadya had had enough of Stalin and his brutal politics. She left Moscow with their two children and returned to her parents in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Stalin eventually talked her into returning but the marriage was less than ideal after she came back.
On November 8, 1932, after being insulted by her husband a banquet honoring the 15th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Nadya shot herself in the head. Her last words to her husband reportedly were, "Don't you 'Hey you' me." Stalin's wife reportedly committed suicide after one of the dictator's bodyguards called to tell her Stalin was in bed with another woman.
Stalin was deeply affected by the suicide and the serious political allegations made in the suicide note she left behind. Sixteen years after Nadya's death, Stalin had her sister, sister-in-law and fried Pauline Molotov arrested for "knowing too much" about the suicide. In her book about her father, Svetlana Stalin wrote: "My mother's death, which my father had taken as a personal betrayal, deprived his soul of the last vestiges of human warmth."
Stalin's Character and Appearance
Stalin was only about five-foot-five. He had six toes, a pockmarked face, and withered let arm. He spoke with a heavy Georgian accent and made a lot of grammatical mistakes. He was notorious for his rough manners. He frequently told obscene jokes and used foul language at formal dinner parties. He liked to drink and have a good time in comradely way.
Stalin has been described as being vindictive and having a deep antipathy for intellectuals. The atrocities attributed to him seem to be the result of a lust for power and sense of paranoia rather than sadism. Stalin's English translator, Victor Erofeyev, said, "I don't think that Stalin was a political killer who derived pleasure from torture.”
People close to him described him as generous and crafty. His former interpreter told the Washington Post, "We looked upon him not as a terrorist, not as a tyrant...He was very attentive. He was a good host, very hospitable." He liked to vacation in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Stalin loved revolutionary musicals. He saw Grigori Alexandrov's Volga, Volga 100 times. and personally intervened to make sure another of Alexendrov's film, The Good Fellows, got passed by the censors. He also loved the René Clair film Sous les Toits de Paris Stalin showed up at the Bolshoi and other theaters to catch concerts and ballet performances from time to time. His habit was to take a seat in the back just before the performance started.
Among those who praised Stalin were Winston Churchill and Jean Paul Satre. The U.S. Ambassador of the United States Joseph E. Davies once said Stalin had a "kindly demeanor" and "almost deprecatingly simple manner." The son of Stalin's English translator, Victor Erofeyev, wrote in the New Yorker that his father told him, "When I met him for the first time I was taken aback. His pitted face had an unhealthy, swarthy hue, the color of earth. His left hand hung with no movement in it. He lifted it with is other hand and placed it in his pocket. But, even sitting with his back to the door, I could sense when Stalin walked into the study. He filled the space and shut out everything else."
Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky
In his last years Lenin had serious doubts about Stalin. In a letter dated December 1922, reportedly written after Stalin was rude to Lenin's wife, Lenin stated: "Stalin is too coarse, and this fault, though tolerable in dealings among us Communists, becomes unbearable in a General Secretary."
"Therefore I propose to the comrades t find some way of removing Stalin from his position and appointing somebody else who differs in respects from Comrade Stalin in one characteristic—namely, someone more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and considerate to his comrades, less capricious, etc. This circumstance may seem to be a mere trifle, but I think that...it is a trifle which may acquire decisive importance."
Despite this condemnation Stalin was able to take power after Lenin’s death and become the leader of the Soviet Union by undermining his main rival Trotsky, the Communist war minister and a close aid of Lenin. Stalin was able to force Trotsky to resign his position as war minister and his membership in the Communist Party.
After Lenin's death, a power struggle ensued between Trotsky was Stalin for control of the party and thus the country. A dispute between Stalin and Trotsky over policy matters in 1927 led to Trotsky's expulsion from the Communist party and his exile from Russia in 1928. Stalin later regretted that he exiled his rival rather than execute him. With Trotsky out the picture Stalin became the supreme dictator of Soviet Russia.
Stalin Becomes Leader of the Soviet Union
Debate over the future of the economy provided the background for Soviet leaders to contend for power in the years after Lenin's death in 1924. After an initial period of confusion and experimentation and by gradually consolidating his influence and isolating his rivals within the party, the Soviet Union came under the control of Stalin in 1927. Stalin became the sole leader of the Soviet Union by the end of the 1920s. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
After Lenin's death, two conflicting schools of thought about the future of the Soviet Union arose in party debates. Left-wing communists believed that world revolution was essential to the survival of socialism in the economically backward Soviet Union. Trotsky, one of the primary proponents of this position, called for Soviet support of a permanent world revolutionary movement. As for domestic policy, the left wing advocated the rapid development of the economy and the creation of a socialist society. In contrast to these militant communists, the right wing of the party, recognizing that world revolution was unlikely in the immediate future, favored the gradual development of the Soviet Union through continuation of pragmatic programs like the NEP. Yet even Bukharin, one of the major right-wing theoreticians, believed that socialism could not triumph in the Soviet Union without assistance from more economically advanced socialist countries.
Against this backdrop of contrasting perceptions of the Soviet future, the leading figures of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik)--the new name of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) as of December 1925--competed for influence. The Kamenev-Zinov'yev-Stalin troika, although it supported the militant international program, successfully maneuvered against Trotsky and engineered his removal as commissar of war in 1925. In the meantime, Stalin gradually consolidated his power base and, when he had sufficient strength, broke with Kamenev and Zinov'yev. Belatedly recognizing Stalin's political power, Kamenev and Zinov'yev made amends with Trotsky in order to join against their former partner. But Stalin countered their attacks on his position with his well-timed formulation of the theory of "socialism in one country." This doctrine, calling for construction of a socialist society in the Soviet Union regardless of the international situation, distanced Stalin from the left and won support from Bukharin and the party's right wing. With this support, Stalin ousted the leaders of the "Left Opposition" from their positions in 1926 and 1927 and forced Trotsky into exile in 1928. As the NEP era ended, open debate within the party became increasingly limited as Stalin gradually eliminated his opponents.
Stalin as Leader of the Soviet Union
Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1927 to his death in 1953. He didn't technically become premier until May 7, 1941. Stalin surrounded himself with sycophants, created a massive bureaucracy and reduced the power of the Politburo to a "fig leaf." He was a demanding boss. People that worked for Stalin often returned home after dawn.
In the early years of his leadership, Stalin continued Lenin’s policies. After Trotsky was exiled in 1928 he began doing thing his way: also in 1928 he launched his first Five-Year plan. This followed by the drive towards collectivization in the early 1930s and the change of the constitution in 1936 to give him more authority.
Policy was dictated under Five-Year Plans, a concept that first appeared under Stalin. In 1928 Stalin introduced the First Five-Year Plan for building a socialist economy. In industry the state assumed control over all existing enterprises and undertook an intensive program of industrialization; in agriculture the state appropriated the peasants' property to establish collective farms. The plan's implementation produced widespread misery, including the deaths of millions of peasants by starvation or directly at the hands of the government during forced collectivization. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996]
Stalin’s regime became steadily more repressive in the 1930s and locked the national economy into a rigid system of state control, with five-year plans prescribing the performance of every economic sector and heavily emphasizing heavy industry. By 1939 the Soviet Union had been transformed from a primarily agricultural country into a world industrial power. From 1941 until 1944, the Soviet Union fought German invading forces in World War II, losing millions of Russian lives. After the war, the Soviet Union and the United States emerged as the world’s major economic and ideological rivals in what soon came to be called the Cold War. In the early years of that confrontation, the Soviet Union gained control of all of Eastern Europe and developed a nuclear bomb. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006]
Stalin’s Personality Cult
Stalin is credited with founding the modern art of the personality cult. Although this practice has been a fixture among despots—such as Hitler, Mao, Kim Il Sung and Saddam Hussein—Stalin was the first to employ it.
Schools, homes and offices were filled with Stalin's picture. His image was always on television and his voice was commonly heard on radio. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Stalin raised more statues of himself than anyone else (over 6,000).
Stalin employed an army of airbrushers, razor cutters, croppers whose job it was to doctor photographs to eliminate people from inspirational pictures of the leader. Over the years so many people that were once close to Stalin were murdered, imprisoned or exiled, that the photograph retouchers literally had to remove thousands of people from the photographs.
A collection of retouched photographs and their originals (some of which has been altered several times) was collected and placed into a book called The Commissar Vanishes (Henry Holtz, 1998) by an English journalist named David King. Retouching photographs continued after Stalin. Khrushchev retired some; Brezhnev rehired them.
Stalin's Five Year Plans
In an effort to catch up with the West and industrialize and modernize the Soviet Union, Stalin launched a series of Five Year Plans in 1928 with the declaration: "We are 50 to 100 years behind advanced countries. We must cover the distance in 10 years." Later he warned, "To slacken the tempo means to fall behind. And the backward are always beaten." In heavy industry, and to some degree with consumer goods, the plans worked. By 1939, only the U.S. and Germany had higher industrial output.
A five-year plan is a comprehensive plan that set the middle-range economic goals in the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet regime stipulated plan figures, all levels of the economy, from individual enterprises to the national level, were obligated to meet those goals. Such plans were followed from 1928 until 1991.
In the first Five-Year plan, Stalin called for a quadrupling of outputs of heavy industry to be achieved with massive building projects and production quotas. Between 1929 and 1933, when the West was enduring the Great Depression and the U.S. industrial output declined by nearly half, the Soviet Union was claiming its production had doubled.
Under Stalin, old historical buildings were torn down to make way for new apartments, schools, metro stations and prisons. About half of Moscow's churches were destroyed, and the ones that remained were turned into warehouses, factories, sports clubs and offices. New projects included huge factories and industrial complex, Gothic wedding-cake skyscrapers in Moscow and other cities, extensive canals system and dams that connected the countries rivers and made unnavigable stretches of river navigable. Much of the work was done by labor camp prisoners and German POWs.
Yale history professor Paul Kennedy wrote: “Believing un the superiority of scientific socialism and obsesses with what one might term “giganticism,” they threw money, raw materials and the lives of many millions of laborer into creating large cities, steel mills and extraction plants in the coldest parts of the world.”
History of Stalin's Five Year Plans
At the end of the 1920s, a dramatic new phase in economic development began when Stalin decided to carry out a program of intensive socialist construction. To some extent, Stalin pressed economic development at this point as a political maneuver to eliminate rivals within the party. Because Bukharin and some other party members would not give up the gradualistic NEP in favor of radical development, Stalin branded them "right-wing deviationists" and during 1929 and 1930 used the party organization to remove them from influential positions. Yet Stalin's break with the NEP also revealed that his doctrine of building "socialism in one country" paralleled the line that Trotsky had originally supported early in the 1920s. Marxism supplied no basis for Stalin's model of a planned economy, although the centralized economic controls of the war communism years seemingly furnished a Leninist precedent. Between 1927 and 1929, the State Planning Committee (Gosudarstvennyy planovyy komitet--Gosplan) worked out the First Five-Year Plan for intensive economic growth; Stalin began to implement this plan--his "revolution from above"--in 1928. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
The First Five-Year Plan called for rapid industrialization of the economy, with particular emphasis on heavy industry. The economy was centralized: small-scale industry and services were nationalized, managers strove to fulfill Gosplan's output quotas, and the trade unions were converted into mechanisms for increasing worker productivity. But because Stalin insisted on unrealistic production targets, serious problems soon arose. With the greatest share of investment put into heavy industry, widespread shortages of consumer goods occurred, and inflation grew. *
By 1932 Stalin realized that both the economy and society were under serious strain. Although industry failed to meet its production targets and agriculture actually lost ground in comparison with 1928 yields, Stalin declared that the First Five-Year Plan had successfully met its goals in four years. He then proceeded to set more realistic goals. Under the Second Five-Year Plan (1933-37), the state devoted attention to consumer goods, and the factories built under the first plan helped increase industrial output in general. The Third Five-Year Plan, begun in 1938, produced poorer results because of a sudden shift of emphasis to armaments production in response to the worsening international climate. In general, however, the Soviet economy had become industrialized by the end of the 1930s. Agriculture, which had been exploited to finance the industrialization drive, continued to show poor returns throughout the decade. *
Mobilization of Society Under Stalin
Under Stalin, society experienced wide-ranging regimentation. Collective enterprises replaced individualistic efforts across the board. Not only did the regime abolish private farms and businesses, but it collectivized scientific and literary endeavors as well. As the 1930s progressed, the revolutionary experimentation that had characterized many facets of cultural and social life gave way to conservative norms. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Considerations of order and discipline dominated social policy, which became an instrument of the modernization effort. Workers came under strict labor codes demanding punctuality and discipline, and labor unions served as extensions of the industrial ministries. At the same time, higher pay and privileges accrued to productive workers and labor brigades. To provide greater social stability, the state aimed to strengthen the family by restricting divorce and abolishing abortion. *
The party also subjected science and the liberal arts to its scrutiny. Development of scientific theory in a number of fields had to be based upon the party's understanding of the Marxist dialectic, which derailed serious research in certain disciplines. The party took a more active role in directing work in the social sciences. In the writing of history, the orthodox Marxist interpretation employed in the late 1920s was modified to include nationalistic themes and to stress the role of great leaders to create legitimacy for Stalin's dictatorship. *
Education returned to traditional forms as the party discarded the experimental programs of Lunacharskiy after 1929. Admission procedures underwent modification: candidates for higher education now were selected on the basis of their academic records rather than their class origins. Religion suffered from a state policy of increased repression, starting with the closure of numerous churches in 1929. Persecution of clergy was particularly severe during the purges of the late 1930s, when many of the faithful went underground. *
Propaganda and Culture Under Stalin
Under Stalin, literature and the arts came under direct party control during the 1930s, with mandatory membership in unions of writers, musicians, and other artists entailing adherence to established standards. After 1934 the party dictated that creative works had to express socialistic spirit through traditional forms. This officially sanctioned doctrine, called "socialist realism," applied to all fields of art. The state repressed works that were stylistically innovative or lacked appropriate content.
In the Stalin era, propaganda was emblazoned on posters, artworks, statues, tapestries, carpets, and lacquered boxes. Tea sets trumpeted achievements like the "tractorization" of the countryside; porcelain dishes were devoted to Stalin's 1936 constitution; and banners depicted children shouting, "Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood!" Propaganda included ideological formulas and slogans. "The people must know their heroes" was an important slogan in the Stalin era. The purpose of Soviet propaganda under Stalin was to promote his personality cult and encourage people to labor and make sacrifices for the state.
When Stalin came to power in the late 1920s, the Party imposed strict controls on culture and education. Contact with the West was all but cut off, and writers and artists were required to join government-supported unions or be ignored. According to the “Revolution from Above,” writers had to to stick close to proletariat values and eliminate all “bourgeois” and “deviaionist” writing. Anything that hinted of mysticism, religion, the supernatural or was anyway linked to the West was forbidden.
After a group of "proletarian writers" had gained ascendancy in the early 1930s, the communist party Central Committee forced all fiction writers into the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934. The union then established the standard of "socialist realism" for Soviet literature, and many of the writers in Russia fell silent or emigrated. A few prose writers adapted by describing moral problems in the new Soviet state, but the stage was dominated by formulaic works of minimal literary value such as Nikolay Ostrovskiy's “How the Steel Was Tempered” and Yuriy Krymov's “Tanker Derbent.”
Stalin-era skyscrapers were distinguishable by their massive size, tiered neo-classical architecture, decorations inspired by Gothic architecture and Orthodox Russian churches, and spires that were added to make them reach to the sky like American skyscrapers. Created as "palaces" for the people by architects who were forced to work for the government, they were designed with "wedding cake" tiers intended to give them an "upward surge."
Foreign Policy Under Stalin
Like Lenin before him, Stalin believed in spreading the Communist revolution beyond the borders of the Soviet Union and making the entire world a Communist state. Before World War II, Stalin supported budding Communist parties in China and Germany and other places. After World War II, he was able realize his goal of expanding Communism into Europe and Asia.
Henry Kissinger one wrote that Stalin "was indeed a monster, but in the conduct of international relations, he was a supreme realist—patient, shrewd and implacable.” Once, when Stalin insisted that the Netherlands was not a member of the Benelux Customs Union, and it was clear he didn’t realize that Holland and Netherlands were the same country, Yugoslav diplomat Milovan Jilas wrote, "I had the desire to explain to him that the 'NE' in Benelux stood for the Netherlands. But since everyone...kept still, I did too."
Soviet foreign policy underwent a series of changes during the first decade of Stalin's rule. Soon after assuming control of the party, Stalin oversaw a radicalization of Soviet foreign policy that paralleled the severity of his remaking of domestic policy. To heighten the urgency of his demands for moderniza-tion, Stalin portrayed the Western powers, particularly France, as warmongers eager to attack the Soviet Union. The Great Depression, which seemingly threatened to destroy world capitalism in the early 1930s, provided ideological justification for the diplomatic self-isolation practiced by the Soviet Union in that period. To aid the triumph of communism, Stalin resolved to weaken the moderate social democratic parties of Europe, which seemed to be the communists' rivals for support among the working classes of the Western world.[Source: Library of Congress]
Stalin and Nazi Germany
Initially, Comintern (Communist International)—an organization founded by Lenin in 1919 to stir up global revolution— ordered the Communist Party of Germany to aid the anti-Soviet National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party) in its bid for power, in the hopes that a Nazi regime would exacerbate social tensions and produce conditions that would lead to a communist revolution in Germany. In pursuing this policy, Stalin thus shared responsibility for Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and its tragic consequences for the Soviet Union and the rest of the world.[Source: Library of Congress *]
The dynamics of Soviet foreign relations changed drastically after Stalin recognized the danger posed by Nazi Germany. From 1934 through 1937, the Soviet Union tried to restrain German militarism by building coalitions hostile to fascism. In the international communist movement, the Comintern adopted the "popular front" policy of cooperation with socialists and liberals against fascism, thus reversing its line of the early 1930s. In 1934 the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations, where Maksim Litvinov, the Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, advocated disarmament and collective security against fascist aggression. *
In 1935 the Soviet Union formed defensive military alliances with France and Czechoslovakia, and from 1936 to 1939 it gave assistance to antifascists in the Spanish Civil War. The menace of fascist militarism to the Soviet Union increased when Germany and Japan (which already posed a substantial threat to the Soviet Far East) signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936. But the West proved unwilling to counter German provocative behavior, and after France and Britain acceded to Hitler's demands for Czechoslovak territory at Munich in 1938, Stalin abandoned his efforts to forge a collective security agreement with the West. *
Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact
Convinced now that the West would not fight Hitler, Stalin decided to come to an understanding with Germany. Signaling a shift in foreign policy, Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's loyal assistant, replaced Litvinov, who was Jewish, as commissar of foreign affairs in May 1939. Hitler, who had decided to attack Poland despite the guarantees of Britain and France to defend that country, soon responded to the changed Soviet stance. Britain and Franc tried to persuade Stalin to join them in declaring war against Germany should it invade Poland. Stalin rejected the proposal while the Soviet Union and Germany engaged in intense negotiations. [Source: Library of Congress *]
The product of the talks between the former ideological foes--the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) of August 23, 1939--shocked the world. The open provisions of the agreement pledged absolute neutrality in the event one of the parties should become involved in war, while a secret protocol partitioned Poland between the parties and assigned Romanian territory as well as Estonia and Latvia (and later Lithuania) to the Soviet sphere of influence. With his eastern flank thus secured, Hitler began the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939; Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. World War II had begun. *
The non aggression pact allowed Russia to seize east Poland, Estonia and Latvia and absorb Bessarabia and Burcovina without German intervention. Germany was given west Poland and Lithuania. Later Stalin traded the Polish provinces of Warsaw and Lublin for most of Lithuania.
Stalin made the pact with Germany in part because he needed more to time to rearm and prepare his army. Plus, he didn't want to antagonize Germany which was situated on the Russia's doorstep. Easily annexing Poland and the Baltics not only gave the Soviet Union more territory it also created a buffer—albeit one that turned out to be easily circumvented—between Germany and the Soviet Union.
Stalin and World War II
Although Stalin tried to avert war with Germany by concluding the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939, in 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Red Army stopped the Nazi offensive at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 and drove through Eastern Europe to Berlin before Germany surrendered in 1945. Although ravaged by the war, the Soviet Union emerged from the conflict as an acknowledged great power. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
As a wartime leader, Stalin was inept at first but improved with time. His cunning outweighed and his barbaric treatment of his own lieutenants.
See Separate Articles on World War II
Stalin’s Last Years
Despite this turmoil of the Great Terror, the Soviet Union developed a powerful industrial economy in the years before World War II. In the early 1950s, Stalin, now an old man, apparently permitted his subordinates in the Politburo (enlarged and renamed the Presidium in October 1952) greater powers within their respective spheres. Also at the Nineteenth Party Congress, the name of the party was changed from the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Indicative of the Soviet leader's waning strength was top aide Georgiy Malenkov's presentation of the political report to the congress in Stalin's stead. Although the general secretary took a smaller part in the day-to-day administration of party affairs, he maintained his animosity toward potential enemies. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
At the time of his death, Stalin was planning a second Great Terror against millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent. Orders were given to build four giant prisons in the Arctic, Siberia and Kazakhstan. The excuse for the crack down was the so-called Doctor’s plot, a conspiracy by the Kremlin doctors to murder the top Communist leaders. The doctors were of Jewish descent and were said to be carrying out orders from the United States. The whole story was a fabrication.
In January 1953, the party newspaper announced that a group of predominantly Jewish doctors had murdered high Soviet officials, including Zhdanov. Western historians speculate that the disclosure of this "doctors' plot" may have been a prelude to an intended purge directed against Georgi Malenkov, the Communist Party Secretary, Vyacheslav Molotov, the foreign minister and secret police chief Lavrenti Beria. When Stalin died in March 1953, under circumstances that remain unclear, his inner circle, which for years had lived in dread of their leader, secretly rejoiced. *
Stalin died at the age of 73 on March 5, 1953. According to the Soviet government line, Stalin died of a cerebral hemorrhage after suffering a stroke in his dacha near Moscow. The circumstances of his death has has caused a lot of speculation. At the time of his death Stalin was having an all-night dinner party with Beria, Malenkov, future leader NikitaKhrushchev, and Nikolai Bulganin, a former war minister. He died after four days of prolonged agony. The report on his death was not issued until three months after his death.
According to Stalin biographer Edward Radzinsky, who based his claim on the bodyguard who discovered Stalin, the dictator was probably poisoned by a bodyguard acting on orders from the Beria, who was on hand with Khrushchev as the Stalin died in a puddle of his own urine. Beria and Khrushchev reportedly refused to call for medical help for more than 13 hours after Stalin collapsed. Beria had reportedly ordered the death out fear that he was soon going to be executed.
According to some reports Stalin was killed with warfarin, a colorless, tasteless, anticoagulant also used as a rat killer. This conclusion was reached based on early drafts of the death report which detailed extensive stomach bleeding and hemorrhaging which is consistent with warfarin poisoning and which was not mentioned in the final report.
Book: Stalin’s Last Crime by Russian historian Vladimir Naumov and Yale Soviet scholar Jonathon Brent.
Reaction to Stalin’s Death
Russians were overwhelmed with grief by Stalin's death. There was a stampede at his funeral. Hundreds were reportedly trampled to death. Even gulag prisoners wept. Four days after his death, Stalin's embalmed body was placed next to the embalmed body of Lenin. On the anniversary of his death rallies are still held in his honor and heaps of flowers are placed on his grave.
Many Georgians continue to regard Stalin as a hero. The don’t associate the atrocities of the Soviet era with him. The manager of the Stalin Museum in Gori, Stalin’s hometown, told National Geographic, “There were others around him who did evil things. Stalin could not have known everything that going on.” One resident of Gori said, “he was powerful, a Georgian known all over the world, that’s the main thing.” Another said, “Only enemies of the country were killed under Stalin, not innocent people.”
Georgians suffered as all Soviets did from forced collectivization, the drive to industrialize and Stalin purges. Yet despite this, affection for Stalin remains high. Many feasts feature toasts to Stalin that go something like this: "The greatest soldier and statesman the world have ever known." In December 2000, the Georgian Communist Party adopted a resolution demanding Stalin’s rehabilitation, claiming that the Soviet dictator had been a victim of “lies.”
Many Russians today love Stalin and regard him as a hero, the savior of Russia and the father of a great nation. Many praise him for winning World War II and industrializing the Soviet Union. One Moscow newspaper that ran a front page article on the rebirth of his popularity concluded, Stalin "is growing in people's mind's not only as a symbol of the fatherland state and the integrity of a great power but as a motive force toward political action in defense of great power status."
In a survey in 2005, 20 percent of the Russians asked said they had a “very positive” image of Stalin and 30 percent had a “somewhat positive” impression. Only 12 percent had a “very negative” view of the dictator. In another survey 25 percent said they would vote for Stalin of he were alive today. By contrast only 6 percent approved of Stalin in 1990 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which suggested that sentiments about Stalin perhaps were a manifestation of hardships people suffered in the new Russia.
During his quarter-century of dictatorial control, Stalin oversaw impressive development in the Soviet Union. From a comparatively backward agricultural society, the country was transformed into a powerful industrial state. But in the course of that transformation, many millions of people were killed, and Stalin's use of repressive controls became an integral function of his regime. The extent to which Stalin's system would be maintained or altered would be a question of vital concern to Soviet leaders for years after his passing.
According to one survey in the 1990s, about a third of Russians said they believed Stalin did more good than harm, a quarter believed he did more harm than good. A quarter believed he did harm and good in equal measures.
Churchill said that when Stalin entered the world it had only a wooden plough. When he left it had nuclear weapons. No great efforts was made to honor the victims of Stalin’s rule as there was to minimally honor the dead from World War II. As of 2005 a single statue of Stalin remained in Moscow. However, a new statue of the dictator was unveiled in Volgagrad (formally Stalingrad). It was statue of Stalin seated with Churchill and Roosevelt that commemorates Yalta.
At a time when Russian lament the reduction of the their nation to a second-rate power and collapse of the once-powerful military, many Russians and former Soviets look pack on the Stalin years with pride. To disown Stalin is to dismiss much of Soviet history. Some revisionists claim the atrocities attributed to Stalin have been greatly exaggerated or were untrue. The catchy tune Stalin chose for a national anthem was restored by Putin. Books about Stalin sell well in bookstores.
See Khrushchev and De-Stalinization under Khrushchev.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016