Ioseb Dzhugashvili was born in 1878 in Georgia, then part of the old Russian empire. The son of a drunk who beat him mercilessly and a pious washerwoman mother, Stalin learned Russian, which he spoke with a heavy accent all his life, in an Orthodox Church-run school.
While studying to be a priest at Tiflis Theological Seminary, he began secretly reading Karl Marx and other left-wing revolutionary thinkers. In 1900, Stalin became active in revolutionary political activism, taking part in labor demonstrations and strikes. Stalin joined the more militant wing of the Marxist Social Democratic movement, the Bolsheviks, and became a student of its leader, Vladimir Lenin.
Stalin’s first big break came in 1912, when Lenin, in exile in Switzerland, named him to serve on the first Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party—now a separate entity from the Social Democrats. The following year, Stalin (finally dropping Dzugashvili and taking the new name Stalin, from the Russian word for “steel”) published an article on the role of Marxism in the destiny of Russia.
In 1917, escaping from an exile in Siberia, he linked up with Lenin and his coup against the middle-class democratic government that had supplanted the czar’s rule. Stalin continued to move up the party ladder, from commissar for nationalities to secretary general of the Central Committee—a role that would provide the center of his dictatorial takeover and control of the party and the new USSR.
Stalin demanded—and got—absolute state control of the economy, as well as greater swaths of Soviet life, until his totalitarian grip on the new Russian empire was absolute.
Stalin proceeded to annex parts of Poland, Romania, and Finland, and occupy Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In May 1941, he made himself chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars; he was now the official head of the government and no longer merely head of the party.
After Germany’s surrender in the spring of 1945, Stalin oversaw the continued occupation and domination of much of Eastern Europe, despite “promises” of free elections in those countries.
Stalin did not mellow with age; he pursued a reign of terror, purges, executions, exiles to the Gulag Archipelago (a system of forced-labor camps in the frozen north) and persecution in the postwar USSR, suppressing all dissent and anything that smacked of foreign, especially Western European, influence.
To the great relief of many, he died of a massive heart attack on March 5, 1953. He is remembered to this day as the man who helped save his nation from Nazi domination—and as the mass murderer of the century, having overseen the deaths of between 8 million and 20 million of his own people.