Joseph Stalin was the dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1929 to 1953. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was transformed from a peasant society into an industrial and military superpower. However, he ruled by terror, and millions of his own citizens died during his brutal reign. Stalin became involved in revolutionary politics, as well as criminal activities, as a young man. After Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin died, Stalin outmaneuvered his rivals for control of the party. Stalin aligned with the United States and Britain in World War II but afterward engaged in an increasingly tense relationship with the West known as the Cold War. After his death, the Soviets initiated a de-Stalinization process.
Young Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin was born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili on December 18, 1878, or December 6, 1878, according to the Old Style Julian calendar (although he later invented a new birth date for himself: December 21, 1879). He grew up in the small town of Gori, Georgia, then part of the Russian empire. When he was in his 30s, he took the name Stalin, from the Russian for “man of steel.”
Stalin grew up poor and an only child. His father was a shoemaker and an alcoholic who beat his son, and his mother was a laundress. As a boy, Stalin contracted smallpox, which left him with lifelong facial scars. As a teen, he earned a scholarship to attend a seminary in the nearby city of Tblisi and study for the priesthood in the Georgian Orthodox Church.
While there he began secretly reading the work of German social philosopher and “Communist Manifesto” author Karl Marx, becoming interested in the revolutionary movement against the Russian monarchy. In 1899, Stalin was expelled from the seminary for missing exams, although he claimed it was for Marxist propaganda.
After leaving school, Stalin became an underground political agitator, taking part in labor demonstrations and strikes. He adopted the name Koba, after a fictional Georgian outlaw-hero, and joined the more militant wing of the Marxist Social Democratic movement, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin.
Stalin also became involved in various criminal activities, including bank heists, the proceeds from which were used to help fund the Bolshevik Party. He was arrested multiple times between 1902 and 1913, and subjected to imprisonment and exile in Siberia.
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In 1906, Stalin married Ekaterina “Kato” Svanidze, a seamstress. The couple had one son, Yakov, who died as a prisoner in Germany during World War II. Ekaterina perished from typhus when her son was an infant.
In 1918 (some sources cite 1919), Stalin married his second wife, Nadezhda “Nadya” Alliluyeva, the daughter of a Russian revolutionary. They had two children, a boy and a girl (Stalin’s only daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, caused an international scandal when she defected to the United States in 1967). Nadezhda committed suicide in her early 30s. Stalin also fathered several children out of wedlock.
Rise to Power
In 1912, Lenin, who was then in exile in Switzerland, appointed Stalin to serve on the first Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. Three years later, in November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power during the Russian Revolution. The Soviet Union was founded in 1922, with Lenin as its first leader.
During these years, Stalin had continued to move up the party ladder, and in 1922 he became secretary general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, a role that enabled him to appoint his allies to government jobs and grow a base of political support.
After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin eventually outmaneuvered his rivals and won the power struggle for control of the Communist Party. By the late 1920s, he had become dictator of the Soviet Union.
READ MORE: Soviet Union Leaders: A Timeline
The Soviet Union Under Stalin
Starting in the late 1920s, Joseph Stalin launched a series of five-year plans intended to transform the Soviet Union from a peasant society into an industrial superpower. His development plan was centered on government control of the economy and included the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture, in which the government took control of farms.
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Millions of farmers refused to cooperate with Stalin’s orders and were shot or exiled as punishment, particularly the kulaks, the more-prosperous farmers who owned land and hired paid workers. The forced collectivization soon led to widespread famine across the Soviet Union that killed millions.
Stalin ruled by terror, with a totalitarian grip in order to eliminate anyone who might oppose him. He expanded the powers of the secret police, encouraged citizens to spy on one another and had millions of people killed or sent to the Gulag system of forced labor camps.
During the second half of the 1930s, Stalin instituted the Great Purge, a series of campaigns designed to rid the Communist Party, the military and other parts of Soviet society from those he considered a threat.
Additionally, Stalin built a cult of personality around himself in the Soviet Union. Cities were renamed in his honor. Soviet history books were rewritten to give him a more prominent role in the revolution and mythologize other aspects of his life.
Stalin was the subject of flattering artwork, literature and music, and his name became part of the Soviet national anthem. He censored photographs in an attempt to rewrite history, removing former associates executed during his many purges. His government also controlled the Soviet media.
Joseph Stalin and World War II
In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Joseph Stalin and Germany’s Nazi Party dictator Adolf Hitler signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Stalin then proceeded to annex parts of Poland and Romania, as well as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He also launched an invasion of Finland.
Then, in June 1941, Germany broke the Nazi-Soviet pact and invaded the USSR, making significant early inroads. (Stalin had ignored warnings from the Americans and the British, as well as his own intelligence agents, about a potential invasion, and the Soviets were not prepared for war.)
As German troops approached the Soviet capital of Moscow, Stalin remained there and directed a scorched earth defensive policy, destroying any supplies or infrastructure that might benefit the enemy. The tide turned for the Soviets with the Battle of Stalingrad from August 1942 to February 1943, during which the Red Army defeated the Germans and eventually drove them from Russia.
As the war progressed, Stalin participated in the major Allied conferences, including the Tehran Conference (1943) and the Yalta Conference (1945). His iron will and deft political skills enabled him to play the loyal ally while never abandoning his vision of an expanded postwar Soviet empire.
Joseph Stalin did not mellow with age: He initiated a reign of terror, purges, executions, exiles to labor camps and persecution in the postwar USSR, suppressing all dissent and anything that smacked of foreign–especially Western–influence.
He established communist governments throughout Eastern Europe, and in 1949 led the Soviets into the nuclear age by exploding an atomic bomb. In 1950, he gave North Korea’s communist leader Kim Il Sung permission to invade United States-supported South Korea, an event that triggered the Korean War.
How Did Joseph Stalin Die?
Stalin, who grew increasingly paranoid in his later years, died on March 5, 1953, at age 74, after suffering a stroke. His body was embalmed and preserved in Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square until 1961, when it was removed and buried near the Kremlin walls as part of the de-Stalinization process initiated by Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971).
How Many People Did Joseph Stalin Kill?
By some estimates, Joseph Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 6 million to 20 million people during his brutal rule, either though political executions or indirectly as a result of Stalin’s policies. The killings first began in the 1930s, as a wave of executions swept the Soviet Union during Stalin’s Great Purge.
“In some cases, a quota was established for the number to be executed, the number to be arrested,” said Stanford University history professor Norman Naimark in a 2010 interview. “Some officials overfulfilled as a way of showing their exuberance.”
Millions more were killed in the horrific famine that struck Ukraine in 1932-1933 and the Kazakh region from 1930 to 1933, partly the result of Stalin’s bungled efforts at collectivization of agriculture. Estimates vary, but about 4 million men, women and children are believed to have starved to death during the Holodomor (a combination of the Ukrainian words for “starvation” and “to inflict death”).