In 1880, Yekaterian and Vissarion Dzhugashvill became parents to a son who would become one of the world’s most feared personalities; his name was Losif, nicknamed “Soso.” To the world, he would be known as Joseph Stalin – the post-Lenin leader of the USSR.
Joseph Stalin had a rather humble and uneventful childhood in the Georgian village of Gori. His two brothers, Mikhail and Georgii, died before reaching the age of one. Joseph’s father Vissarion, a shoemaker, was an alcoholic who abused his wife and child. His mother was supportive, ensuring that he was educated first in a theological school and later in seminary in Tiflis. As he progressed in the Russian Communist Party, however, Joseph evidently did not feel a strong bond with her; when she died in 1937, he had not visited her for two years.
Stalin was expelled from seminary in 1899 and became politically active shortly before Lenin and Martov began their revolutionary newspaper Iskra (The Spark). In 1901, Stalin became an elected member of the Tiflis Social Democratic Committee. This began his “career” as a political activist.
Tsarist officials kept an eye on him between the times when he was either imprisoned or exiled. This physical description was circulated among the police at that time: 5’4” male; sunken hazel eyes; soft voice; birthmark on left ear; pock-marked face; thick black hair and mustache (but no beard); withered left arm; second and third toes of left foot grown together.
Stalin escaped the Tsarist prisons a record five times. The prisons weren’t as bad as you would imagine – they were thought of as universities of sorts because the prisoners had access to vast libraries. Stalin vowed that “his” prison system would neither allow escapes nor be an educational system. It would, he said, become a grim exercise in survival.
In June 1904, Stalin married Yekaterina “Kato” Svanidze. He had no real career, and they were forced to live “on the run.” He became known as a Robin Hood of sorts, taking part in robberies to assist the Party. (He was eventually expelled for these “expropriations.”) His son, Yakov, was born in 1905. In 1907, his wife died of typhoid.
In 1912 he officially changed his name to Stalin, meaning “man of steel,” and made an aggressive entrance into Bolshevik politics. After escaping deportation in Western Siberia, Stalin visited with Lenin in Cracow and proceeded to Vienna, where he met Trotsky and began writing political tracts. Stalin was selected for the Boshelvik Central committee at a Party Conference in Prague.
Stalin avoided being drafted into the World War I service of Russia because of his withered arm and deformed foot. During the war, he was exiled for four years to Turukhansk.
When the Bolsheviks seized power fro the temporary revolutionary government after the assassination of the Tsar, Stalin became Commissar of Nationalities. Following this revolution, there continued to be unrest in Russia and neighboring states, which would later be defeated by the Red Army to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In 1922, Stalin was elected General Secretary of the Party, positioning himself to take over as Lenin’s health failed.
In 1924, Lenin died and Stalin seized power. The only real opposition to Stalin’s power grab came from Leon Trotsky, whom Lenin had trusted and valued. However, Trotsky was more of revolutionary thinker and philosopher, and he did not pay close attention to politics, allowing Stalin to easily gain the support and power needed to lead the Party from the General Secretary’s position. Trotsky was expelled from the Party, later permanently exiled from the USSR, and eventually assassinated in Mexico.
Stalin pretty much lived to rule. Although he remarried and was the father of more children, his personal life hardly existed as he rose in power. Stalin’s second wife and mother of two children, Nadezhda, committed suicide on November 8, 1932. Stalin did not appear to blame himself for her death (as most others around him secretly did); instead he viewed her action as treachery on her part. He did not attend the funeral.
His relationship with his children was so distant as to be virtually nonexistent, and his children did not lead happy lives. Stalin’s eldest son, Yakov, attempted to shoot himself, but the bullet missed vital organs and he survived after a long recuperation. Shortly after his suicide attempt, Stalin reportedly greeted his son with, “Ha! You missed!” Yakov later joined the Army and became a commander; he was killed while attempting to escape from a prison camp during World War II. Stalin’s other son, Vasili, was also in the Army, but he finished life an invalid from alcoholism.
Stalin did appear to have a closer relationship with his daughter, Svetlana, but that faded quickly as she grew older and he grew more paranoid. The relationship became seriously strained when he had her first boyfriend Alexander Yakovlevich Kapler, sentenced, on trumped-up charge, to ten years in a prison camp.
Meanwhile, Stalin focused on ferreting out or “unmasking enemies of the people.” He made accusations against friends and even family members who were previously regarded as allies, and he did nothing to assist those who might have been unjustly accused. Instead, he grew more intensely suspicious.
By the time Stalin began his infamous Five-Year Plans, he was far removed from the people, and he had little regard for the human difficulties associated with collectivization. The kulak (farming peasant class) became desperate as their properties were confiscated. The agricultural life of the USSR was in turmoil: half to two-thirds of all livestock was slaughtered by 1933 to feed hungry people; the amount of cultivated land fell sharply; and families torn from their land became homeless. Hunger and desperation led to petty thievery of food and basic supplies, which was punishable by an unconditional ten-year imprisonment. By 1933, more than 50,000 people had been sentenced to the concentration camps.
During this time, Stalin was trusting aides and colleagues less and less, preferring to direct Soviet life personally. He purged anyone who seemed to threaten his power. The relationship between Stalin and the rest of the Party became so strained in the early 1930s that almost a quarter of the Party delegates voted against Stalin in a leadership vote. After that, Stalin no longer took the chance of putting himself up for re-election. He directed that Party and state documents stop listing him as General Secretary, an elected position, and he continued ruling without an official title.
Toward the latter 1930s, Stalin became more hard-lined and paranoid. Anyone could be accused of “Trotskyism” and sentenced to death. In a two-year period, 30,514 people were sentenced to be shot for disloyalty to the State. The NKVD, Stalin’s police force, rounded up thousands of people suspected of capital crimes; Stalin and the chief of NKVD signed orders for their executions without considering circumstance or proof.
By the end of the 1930s, the purges began tapering off. Party membership had understandably declined, so that Stalin seemed less inclined to purge and more inclined to work on filling the ranks with properly dogmatized young Stalinists.
The USSR entered the war, joining the allies against Germany, but after, the wary allies quickly split again, Stalin continued his hard-line tactics, and continual unrest was in the Party. Military standards thrived while living standards suffered.
When Stalin died in 1953, an inventory of his possessions revealed only a government-issue piano; there were no valuable furnishings of any kind. Stalin’s clothes were largely inexpensive and included a marshal’s uniform. His linens consisted of Army-issued blankets. The only original art he owned was a photo of himself and Lenin together in a friendly pose at Gorky Park. This was later determined to be a carefully constructed photo montage – a fake rendition of a scene that never happened.