[DECEMBER 21, 1879ARCH 5, 1953]
Russian revolutionary and politician; successor to Lenin as ruler of the Soviet Union and head of the Communist Party (1929 to 1953)
One of the bloodiest despots in modern history, Joseph Stalin helped transform the Soviet Union into a military and industrial superpower, but at a staggering cost in human lives and suffering. In the words of scholar Stephen Cohen, Stalin's rule was a "holocaust by terror" that "victimized tens of millions of people for twenty-five years."
Stalin was born Iosif Vissioronovich Djugashvili on December 21, 1879, in the Georgian village of Gori. The son of a poor shoemaker, Iosif became a professional revolutionary and at age thirty-four adopted the political name of Stalin, meaning "man of steel." A member of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Party, Stalin played a minor role in the 1917 October Revolution and entered the new Soviet government as Commissar of Nationalities. In 1922 he became General Secretary of the Communist Party, a position he subsequently transformed into the major base of power in the Soviet state. A gifted politician, Stalin outmaneuvered his rivals to become the sole leader of the party and the state by 1929.
Human life had little value for Stalin, who viewed people largely as instruments for serving the needs of the state. In the late 1920s, Stalin launched a massive drive to transform Soviet industry and agriculture. To support industrialization, he ordered the collectivization of agriculture and the creation of large-scale communal farms. But collectivization soon turned into a bloody civil war that raged across the countryside, resulting in the death and deportation of five to eight million people. Those who resisted faced either execution or exile to "special settlements" in remote northern regions, where up to a third of them died from the harsh conditions. Collectivization proved even more deadly during the famine years of 1932 and 1933 when an estimated five to eight million peasants died in Ukraine and Central Asia. Some scholars view this famine as a deliberate act of genocide, whereas others blame it on bureaucratic incompetence and poor planning.
Repression was central to Stalin's leadership from the beginning. Throughout the period from 1929 to 1953 the regime employed tactics of terror, arresting people on false charges of conspiracy and espionage, then either executing them or sentencing them to labor camps, where they toiled in harsh, debilitating conditions. Chronic absenteeism at work or picking up grain husks from a harvested field could bring a ten-year sentence. According to one scholar, over twenty-eight million Soviet citizens passed through the forced labor camps and colonies between 1929 and 1953. Located all across the Soviet Union, in every time zone, the camps were filthy, brutal, and dehumanizing. Death rates were high, averaging about 6 percent per year. One archival source states that over two million inmates died in the camps between 1929 and 1953, but this does not include all categories of prisoners.
The height of the Stalinist repression, known as the Great Terror, lasted from 1936 to 1939. The majority of victims during this period were from the Communist Party, the economic ministries, the military, the Communist International, and minority nationalities. No precise figures exist. Official KGB figures for 1937938 claim that just under 700,000 were executed and that at the beginning of the 1940s there were about 3.6 million in labor camps and prisons. Stephen Wheatcroft and R. W. Davies have calculated that the total number of excess deaths from 1927 to 1938 may have amounted to some ten million persons, 8.5 million killed between 1927 and 1936 and about 1 to 1.5 million between 1937 and 1938.
Historians disagree over the motives behind the terror. Some focus on Stalin's paranoia and thirst for power, while others cite fears of an internal "fifth column" in the face of pending war and the Nazi threat. Still others argue that the process moved in part from below, due to party in-fighting, the desire to settle personal scores, and anti-elitist sentiments among the rank and file. Stalin's role as author of the terror, however, is clear: He formulated the majority of the directives and personally commanded and supervised arrests, show trials, and executions.
During World War II, the Stalinist regime carried out ethnic cleansing, though the exact motives remain unclear. It deported 400,000 Volga Germans to Central Asia and Siberia out of fear that they would support the invading enemy. Between 1943 and 1944, Stalin ordered the deportation of about a million Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Balkars, Kalmiks, and Turks from their homelands to Central Asia, alleging that they had collaborated with the Germans. Transported in sealed boxcars, with no fresh air, proper food, sanitation, or medical care, as many as 40 percent died along the way from hunger, cold, and disease. Those who resisted the deportation were shot. Prior to the war, in 1940, Stalin had ordered the execution of 21,857 Poles. Of these, over 4,000 were officers who were shot and buried in mass graves in the Katyn Forest (Smolensk region). This crime was denied by the Soviet regime for fifty years.After the war, smaller-scale repressions continued to fill the camps. The number of prisoners rose from 1,460,676 in 1945 to 2,468,524 in 1953. The postwar period was marked by fierce attacks on creative artists, deportations of Balt, Moldavian, and Ukrainian populations, and a virulent anti-Semitic campaign that culminated in the arrests in 1953 of nine Kremlin doctors on charges of murder and treason. In addition, there were
Tragically, even Stalin's death in 1953 came at a price. On the day of his funeral, tens of thousands of people crowded in the streets to view the body, and many were crushed to death in the ensuing panic. Despite the magnitude of his crimes, Stalin's legacy remains complex. Some see him as the worst monster who ever ruled, a modern Genghis Khan who devoured his own children. Yet others consider him a resolute and even heroic leader who did what was necessary in order to modernize Russia and defeat its enemies. Some who lived through the Stalin years later remembered them as a time of vibrant idealism and energy. But no evaluation of Stalin's leadership can ignore the horrific price paid in human lives, and the incalculable physical, moral, and psychological destruction he left behind.
SEE ALSO Gulag; Katyn; Lenin, Vladimir; Ukraine (Famine); Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Applebaum, Anne (2003). Gulag. A History. New York: Doubleday.
Cohen, Stephen F. (1999). "Bolshevism and Stalinism." In Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation, ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Transaction Publishers.
Davies, R. W., Mark Harrison, and Stephen Wheatcroft, eds. (1994). The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Naimark, Norman M. (2001). Fires of Hatred. Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Read, Christopher, ed. (2003). The Stalin Years. A Reader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
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