Joseph Stalin was born in the small Georgian town of Gori on December 6, 1878. His father, Vissarion, or “Beso,” was a drunken cobbler who beat his wife, Ekaterina, or “Keke,” who in turn beat the son, whom they called “Soso.” In 1888 Soso entered the Gori Church School, and in 1894 he won a scholarship to the Tiflis Seminary, where he became an atheist and a Marxist before being expelled in 1899. He then joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, assuming the professional revolutionary name of Koba.
Exiled to Siberia in 1902, Koba escaped and returned to Tiflis in 1904, where he married Ekaterina (“Kato”) Svanidze, with whom he had a son, Yakov, before Kato died of tuberculosis in 1907. Mostly an absentee husband and father, Koba traveled the Caucasus raising Party funds by brigandage. Sent back to Siberia in 1910, Koba fathered a son, Konstantin Kuzakov, by a young widow, Maria Kuzakova.
Escaping again, Koba went to Petersburg in 1912, sharing rooms with the twenty-two-year-old Vyacheslav Scriabin, who called himself Molotov, “the hammer,” and taking his own industrial alias, Stalin, “steel.” Exiled a final time in 1913, Stalin was back in Petersburg by 1917 under the Provisional Government and became, along with Leon Trotsky, one of five members of the Politburo (Political Bureau) formed by Vladimir Ilich Lenin as an organ of the Bolshevik Revolution begun in October, 1917. Stalin married the seventeen-year-old Nadya Alliluyeva, with whom he had a son, Vasily, and a daughter, Svetlana, before Nadya committed suicide in 1932.
Appointed general secretary of the party's Central Committee (CC) in 1922, with Lenin's death in 1924 Stalin was able to shove aside Trotsky and brutalize the Soviet Union for three decades. His ruthlessness emerged in his starvation of the kulaks, those peasants who resisted the collectivization judged vital to producing the food for the growing industrial machine. Author Simon Sebag Montefiore observes, “The resulting rural nightmare was like a war without battles but with death on a monumental scale.” Stalin and his “magnates” lived sumptuously as one big Kremlin family, while the famine in the countryside was claiming perhaps more than five million lives and creating an uneasiness in the Politburo that inflamed Stalin's paranoia. Of the 1,966 delegates to the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1932, 1,108 would eventually be arrested, with few surviving.
The death of Sergei Kirov remains a mystery. He was one of Stalin's closest friends and a Politburo member, but as Leningrad chief he had annoyed Stalin by resisting his plan to end bread rationing. Kirov was assassinated in his office building on December 1, 1934, perhaps by a naïve tool of the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs). The evidence remains equivocal, but “Whether or not he killed Kirov, Stalin certainly exploited the murder to destroy not only his opponents but the less radical among his own allies.” Declaring Kirov's murder a terrorist act, Stalin launched a series of executions, including those of two prominent old Leninists, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. In December alone, 6,501 people were shot in a crackdown followed by the show trials and designed to beat the party into submission.
Two months after Kirov's death, Stalin appointed Lazar Kaganovich railways chief and Nikita Khrushchev Moscow boss. Kirov was replaced as CC secretary by Nikolai Yezhov, a brutal “bisexual dwarf ” nicknamed “Blackberry” by Stalin, and in the bloodbath that followed in 1937, Yezhov was the tireless instrument of the “democide, the class struggle spinning into cannibalism.” The latest figures suggest 700,000 were shot in the Terror. Yezhov's dissoluteness and ill health, however, led Stalin to replace him with a new favorite, the sadist Lavrenti Beria, who between February 24 and March 16, 1939, executed 417 important prisoners. Yezhov himself was shot in 1940.
With the internal threats suppressed, Stalin turned to dividing up Europe with Adolf Hitler, whose foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, arrived in Moscow on August 23, 1939, to sign a nonaggression pact, beginning what Molotov called “The Great Game.” A week later Germany invaded Poland, and on September 17 Russian troops crossed into Poland from the other side. By November, 1940, Khrushchev had deported 1.17 million Poles, 30 percent of whom were dead by 1941....
(The entire section is 1803 words.)