Joseph Stalin

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281

Stalin, Joseph 1879-1953

(Born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili) Soviet dictator.

Stalin led the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as absolute dictator for twenty-four years. While he is credited with transforming the USSR into a world superpower, Stalin's use of mass execution—called "purgings"—and terror made him one of the most reviled political figures in history. As a writer and editor at the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, as well as the author of books and articles, Stalin contributed to the body of works delineating Soviet ideology. However, critics are divided over the importance of his writings; some maintain that Stalin simply regurgitated Marxist doctrine as it had already been interpreted by Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik movement. Nonetheless, Stalin created for himself as leader a supreme status that gave rise to a cult-like following despite his renowned tyranny.

Biographical Information

Stalin was born in the small town of Gori, in czarist Georgia, in 1879. His father, a poor shoemaker, was an abusive alcoholic who was killed in a brawl when Stalin was eleven years old. His mother was an illiterate peasant who, after his father's death, prepared Stalin to enter the Orthodox priesthood. Stalin entered the Tiflis Theological Seminary when he was fourteen, but he was expelled in 1899 because of his involvement in a revolutionary anti-czarist group. In 1901 he officially joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party. A year later he was arrested and sent to a prison in Siberia, from which he escaped in 1904, returning to the underground Marxist movement in Tiflis. When Russian Marxism split into two factions—the radical Bolsheviks and the more moderate Menshiviks—Stalin sided with the Bolsheviks, thus aligning himself with Lenin and other major party leaders. Beginning in 1905 he attended several international conferences of the Russian Social Democrats, where he was first introduced to Lenin. In the following years Stalin was arrested and imprisoned on several instances; each time he escaped. In 1912 he went to Vienna to study Marxism; at that time he wrote Marxism and the National Question. The following year he began writing for the party newspaper Pravda, under the pseudonym Joseph Stalin, which means "man of steel." During the Russian Revolution of 1917 Stalin concentrated his efforts at the paper's editorial offices, rather than taking part directly in the events. In fact, most historians agree that Stalin played a rather insignificant role in the first years following the revolution; he was appointed People's Commissar for Nationalities and was a military commissar during the civil war of 1918-1921. Although Lenin valued Stalin for his organizational abilities and appointed him to the post of general secretary, a powerful position, Stalin's emphasis on Russian nationalism made Lenin uncomfortable. Leon Trotsky also quarreled with Stalin on policy and theoretical issues at this time; Lenin usually sided with Trotsky, but as general secretary Stalin's position of power was secure. Lenin, before his death, allegedly warned other party members about Stalin's potential for abusing power but was too ill to take action. Lenin died in 1924, and within five years Stalin had total control of the party. His first act was to extinguish Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP)—intended to introduce a limited amount of free trade to the Soviet system in order to revive the economy after the civil war—and replace it with his own policy of collectivization, which nationalized the agricultural industry. Collectivization was an unmitigated disaster: peasants who refused to turn over their livestock and farms to the state were executed or sent to Stalin's prison work camps, called gulags. With agricultural production cut in half, mass famine ensued, and at least three to ten million peasants died of starvation. Stalin denied blame for the failure of collectivization, accusing others of misunderstanding his directives. His other major goal was to introduce widespread industrialization to the USSR, in order to move the country from an agriculture-based to an industry-based economy. In this he succeeded—initiating the machinery that would eventually make the Soviet Union a superpower nation—in large part because of the slave labor provided by the millions of Soviet citizens imprisoned in the gulags. Around 1934 Stalin launched the period that would be known as the Great Terror. Throughout the 1930s about one million old Bolshevik party members (those who had taken part in the pre-Stalin revolutionary era) and countless millions of citizens were accused of sabotage, treason, and espionage and were arrested, tortured, and either executed or sent to the gulags. This massive effort to ensure Stalin's absolute power was called "purging." Dramatic purge trials of party officials and senior members of the Red Army were set up. Defendants were accused of treason and other trumped-up charges and were always found guilty. The purging of the army had particularly devastating effects when the Soviet Union became involved in World War II. Stalin signed a Non-Aggression Pact with German dictator Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1939. The Pact included secret plans for the two leaders to control the European territories each considered essential to his country's expansion. But when Germany invaded Poland in September of that year, Stalin sought to increase the Soviet Union's presence in western Europe by invading Finland in November; Finland surrendered, and in June of 1941 Hitler broke his Pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, which, because of the military purgings, suffered devastating losses for nearly two years. Historians are divided over the degree of Stalin's success as a military commander during the German invasion. Many blame the huge Soviet losses on his increasing paranoia and megalomania. Nonetheless, the Red Army did hold off the Germans until they surrendered in 1945. After the war Stalin moved quickly to seize control of Eastern European countries to create the Soviet bloc. In 1949 the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, ushering in the arms race and Cold War with the United States that would last into the late 1980s. In 1953 Stalin was planning another series of purges, this time because of an alleged traitorous plot among the mostly Jewish Kremlin physicians. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage before the new purge trials could take place.

Major Works

Stalin produced a number of works on Soviet ideology—including Marxism and the National Question, Marxism and Linguistics, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, and his collected lectures on Foundations of Leninism—but whether or not he added anything new or innovative to theoretical communism is debatable. Many critics consider his writing unoriginal and repetitive. He did, however, transform Soviet communism, in his writings and his practices, from a revolutionary system to a strategy of conservative, isolationist authoritarianism. His talent for propaganda allowed him to establish an astonishingly effective cult of personality despite his reputation for brute violence. By neutralizing anyone he considered or suspected of being an enemy, Stalin opened an avenue to total control of both his party and his people, whether they were followers or not. Pictures and statues of him were placed in all public places, as well as in private Soviet homes. His writings were studied, and poems and songs were written to glorify him. He encouraged his image as "Father of the Soviet People" and the "Great Teacher," and, after the Germans were driven out of the USSR in World War II, he exploited the role of savior of his country. After his death Stalin was still revered by Soviet citizens, many of whom wept openly when they heard he had died. Although he continued to receive credit for advancing Soviet society into the technological age to successfully compete with other world powers, in 1956 his successor Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders officially denounced Stalin and his actions. His policies were directly responsible for the deaths of as many as thirty million Soviets.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Principal Works