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Joseph Stalin was a revolutionary who became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1927, several years after the death of Vladimir Lenin. Stalin’s harsh policies were responsible for millions of deaths, yet his model of government, in various forms, served as method of modernization for more than a billion people living in Communist regimes outside the Soviet Union.
Under Joseph Stalin’s leadership during World War II (1939–1945), the Soviet Union managed to defeat Adolf Hitler’s German armies and also to intervene successfully in the Far East. Military power gave Stalin a large role in shaping global history after the war. Stalin’s brutal dictatorship in the Soviet Union, beginning in 1927, as well as his export of a fatally flawed Soviet system to other states in Eurasia, largely created the Cold War. Despite its terrible costs, the Stalinist model, in modified forms, became an alternative method of modernization for more than a billion people living in Communist regimes outside the Soviet Union.
Early Career of Joseph Stalin
Iosif (Joseph) Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (1878/79– 1953)—known by his revolutionary pseudonym “Stalin,” meaning “man of steel”—became the world’s most powerful dictator after World War II. He was born in Gori, Georgia, which was a vassal of the Russian Empire. Stalin, the son of a cobbler, was known in his youth as a tough street fighter, a promising scholar, and a gifted adolescent poet. He followed his mother’s wishes and entered the Tbilisi Theological Seminary, but became a Marxist there. He went into the revolutionary underground in Georgia in 1896, joined the Social Democrats, and then joined that party’s Bolshevik faction in 1903. Although an admirer of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924), Stalin did not appreciate all of Lenin’s tactical twists and turns. Unlike Lenin, who lived in exile in western Europe for most of the years between 1900 and 1917, Stalin continued to spend much of his early career in the Russian Empire’s revolutionary underground. In the revolution of 1905, Stalin was in the thick of things in major cities in Transcaucasia (the area that includes all of Armenia and most of Georgia and Azerbaijan). During the revolutionary doldrums after the suppression of the 1905 revolution, Stalin established himself as a major organizer in Transcaucasia and as a supplier of desperately needed party funds through “expropriations,” although he spent much of 1908–1912 in prison and exile in Siberia.
Joseph Stalin’s Rise to Prominence
In 1912 and 1913, during a hiatus between imprisonments, Stalin wrote on the Marxian theory of nationalities (at Lenin’s request) and joined the Bolshevik top echelon. (Both Lenin and Stalin believed that nation-states would soon become obsolete, yet they recognized the power of nationalism and promised the ethnic minorities and nationalities in multinational states a certain amount of cultural and political autonomy. This, theoretically at least, included the nations’ right to secede.) At the Prague conference of 1912, Lenin made Stalin a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee and an editor of its journal, Pravda. Stalin had risen to the top of the party hierarchy along with his close comrade, Grigory Konstantinovich Ordzhonikidze, and Lenin’s more theoretically oriented lieutenants, Grigory Yevseyevich Zinovyev and Lev Borisovich Kamenev. In February 1913, Stalin was arrested and sent to Siberia. When he returned from Siberian exile after the February Revolution of 1917, Stalin resumed his position as one of Lenin’s right-hand men.
Joseph Stalin as a Bolshevik Oligarch
Stalin’s laconic manner and plain ways set him apart from the leading Bolsheviks. Lenin, however, appreciated his effectiveness and made him commissar of nationalities in 1917, a member of the Politburo and Orgburo, and, in 1922, the general secretary of the Communist Party—a post that became Stalin’s main source of power. Although Lenin criticized Stalin in 1923 and suggested that he be removed from the post, party leaders did not follow through—to their misfortune. Shortly after Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin outmaneuvered all opponents, whether on the left or right wing of the party. He used his power over party personnel to pack party conferences and congresses and to elect cronies to the Central Committee and the Politburo.
In 1928, against Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin’s advice, Stalin abandoned Lenin’s New Economic Policy (which restored a money economy and revived urban retail trade and small industrial enterprises) in favor of crash industrialization and collectivization of the peasantry. Aside from the mass deaths and agricultural catastrophes associated with collectivization, Stalin’s policies contributed to a massive famine in 1932 and 1933, especially severe in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and Kazakhstan. Stalin solidified his position as dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) after the Great Purges of 1937–1938. In the Great Purges, the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (abbreviated from the Russian name as NKVD) executed seasoned party members, top leaders and military men, and hundreds of thousands of faceless victims. Was it a brutal but effective method of securing Stalin’s power or the actions of a paranoid personality? Most historians see some of each at work. Stalin had educated a new stratum of “Red Experts” with technical degrees, and they quickly moved into the positions of those purged. The new people were Stalin’s own and would be his instruments in a command economy (where the government regulates the supplies and their prices) that featured industrial gigantism.
Joseph Stalin and World Affairs
Stalin’s diplomatic and military decisions of 1939– 1945 contributed to the greatest loss of life suffered by any warring state in the twentieth century, but under his leadership the USSR survived the Nazi onslaught. The USSR formed a winning alliance with Great Britain and the United States, and played the largest role in defeating Germany. Stalin abolished the Comintern, an international association of Communist parties, in 1943, but after World War II he set up a defensive structure of Communist buffer states to the west and an uneasy alliance with Mao Zedong on the east. His behavior in Eastern Europe hastened the Cold War and led Western countries to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Stalin then formed his own alliance, the Warsaw Pact.
Like Lenin, Stalin believed in the inevitability of imperialist wars, and to prepare for it he created a multinational Communist empire. Stalin opposed the appearance of any independent centers of power in the Communist camp, although he failed in Yugoslavia and China. He ruled over his vast domain in an increasingly irrational manner until his death, but he enjoyed popular admiration to the point of cult worship. Soviet peoples, some of them interned in slave labor camps (the Gulag), suffered tremendously another while their country acquired nuclear weapons and maintained a huge military. Stalin’s behavior kept all his colleagues on edge, and they were relieved when he died of a stroke in March 1953. His successors rejected the Stalinist state terror, but the centralized economy resisted change.
Despite its dreadful costs—famines, mass deportations, chronic shortages of consumer goods, blood purges, and totalitarian controls—the Soviet system created by Stalin appealed to a variety of Third World modernizers, who adapted it to their own purposes. Stalin and those who followed him exported not only an economic model, but techniques of power featuring feared security apparatuses. The Marxist aspects of Stalinism receded in favor of nationalism and de facto imperialism. By the twenty-first century, Stalin became a symbol of Russian power, and his image as mass murderer gave way to that of a strong leader. In Russia and China, Stalin and Mao remain cult figures among ordinary people, and one commonly hears that their policies were “70 percent correct.”
- Davies, R. W., et al. (Eds.). (2003). The Stalin-Kaganovich correspondence, 1931–36. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Kuromiya, H. (2005). Stalin. London: Pearson Longman.
- Lih, L. T., Naumov, O. V., & Khlevniuk, O. V. (Eds.). (1995). Stalin’s letters to Molotov, 1925–1936. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Montefiore, S. S. (2007). Young Stalin. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
- Service, R. (2005). Stalin: A biography. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
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