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WW II: Behind Closed Doors

Stalin, the Nazis and the West

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin, the man who would amass extraordinary political power to become the totalitarian ruler of the Soviet Union, was born Josef Dzhughashvili in Gori, Georgia, a satellite of Russia. He endured an unhappy childhood – his parents were poor, he was the family's only surviving child, and his father was a violent drunk. Stalin's mother, who wanted her son to become a priest, sent him to the Gori Spiritual School in 1888, where he learned Russian. He continued his religious studies in 1894 at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary in Tbilisi. Here his life took a decisive turn when he read the works of censored authors, including Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. He left school in 1899, committed to the idea of Marxism and intent on channeling his energies into revolutionary activities like organizing protests and "liberating" capital from Russian banks. By 1903, he had allied himself with the Bolshevik party, led by Lenin. By 1912, he had taken the name "Stalin," after the Russian word for steel.

In 1917, when revolution forced Russia's Tsar Nicholas II to step down, Stalin was in Siberia, serving his final year of a four-year term of exile, the last of his many imprisonments and banishments for revolutionary activities. By November, the Bolsheviks controlled the country. Under Lenin, Stalin quietly began to accumulate positions of power, becoming a member of the party's Central Committee and the commissar for nationalities in 1917, the commissar for state control in 1919, and the party’s general secretary in 1922. He also married Nadya Allilueva, who bore him two children, Vasili and Svetlana, in 1921 and 1926. Stalin already had a son, Yakob (born in 1907), from his marriage to Ketevan Svanidze. After little more than a year, that marriage had ended in 1907 with Ketevan’s death, most likely from tuberculosis. As a father, Stalin was distant and had a rough temperament; he was often disappointed when his children failed to live up to his expectations. In 1932, Nadya committed suicide. Stalin never took another wife.

Young Joseph Stalin

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs

When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin was by no means his most likely successor, but through talented political maneuvering, a naturally suspicious mindset, and luck, he bested his rivals and emerged as the party’s leader by 1928. Before he died, Lenin had grown disillusioned with Stalin. In a letter from December 1922, he warned prominent members of the party that Stalin "has concentrated boundless power in his hands and I am not convinced that he will always manage to use this power with adequate care." Although Lenin suggested the party remove Stalin, they did nothing, and many of its members soon paid a heavy price. In the 1930s Stalin conducted purges, eliminating party rivals Stalin conducted purges, eliminating party rivals and possible enemies, decimating the Red Army's military leadership, and persecuting citizens he thought were bourgeois, critical of his regime, or potentially dangerous. Throughout his rule, Stalin created an atmosphere of unpredictability and fear that allowed him to reign supreme. Extremely mistrustful of the motives of others—to the point of paranoia, especially later in life—Stalin crushed initiative and independence, even among his closest associates. Whether a threat was real or imagined, Stalin took no chances. Nikita Khrushchëv, who took over leadership of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, wrote, “All of us around Stalin were temporary people. As long as he trusted us to a certain degree, we were allowed to go on living and working. But the moment he stopped trusting you, Stalin would start to scrutinize you until the cup of his distrust overflowed.”

Joseph Stalin dead

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs

Despite his ruthlessness, under Stalin's leadership the Soviet Union became a global power. With Stalin at the helm, the country was able to stave off Hitler's Nazi invasion during World War II (although this cost the lives of more than 27 million Soviet citizens), and his forced industrialization, which also contributed to the death of millions, wrenched the country into modernity. By the time Stalin died on March 5, 1953, after suffering a stroke four days prior, the Soviet Union had built an atomic bomb, exercised influence over a vast area of eastern Europe, and boasted the world's seco- nd largest economy, trailing only the United States.