Joseph Stalin

Stalin was a brutal dictator who was responsible for the death of millions. He held power in an iron fist until his death in 1953. He did anything he thought necessary to keep his power.

Early Years

Stalin’s official records show that he was born on December 6, 1878 but in his biography it states he was born on December 21, 1879. It is believed that Stalin had the dates changed himself but no one is sure why he did it.

Stalin had a difficult childhood and was often beaten by his father and his mother. Stalin was recognized as being very intelligent and did very well in school. He was well-behaved at school but would often get in fights on the street.

Stalin got into a number of fights and he was determined to be the best, toughest fighter at the school. When he was faced with a stronger opponent, Stalin would do whatever was necessary to win and would often resort to tactics that the other children would not. When he was fifteen years old, he entered the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary. It was here that he first showed his interest in radical ideas regarding social and economic reform.

Stalin left the seminary when it was time for the final examinations but he refused to write the exams. He left the seminary and although he claimed he was kicked out for spreading Marxist ideas, it was actually his decision to leave.

Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party

Stalin joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party shortly after leaving the seminary and became involved in a number of activities designed to promote Marxist thought. He ended up being arrested and was sent to prison in 1902 and then exiled to Siberia. Stalin quickly made plans to escape and after eight attempts, he was successful.

While Stalin was exiled in Siberia, the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party split into two factions. One faction, the Bolsheviks, were led by Lenin and the other faction, the Mensheviks, were led by Julius Martov.

In 1905, a political demonstration led to a massacre which was blamed on the czar of Russia. This massacre was followed by numerous strikes and protests and political parties were now able to operate without fear of arrest.

In 1905, the czar promised to make a number of reforms which would have led to an elected parliament but Stalin and the other Bolsheviks were not interested in an election. They wanted an armed uprising and a dictatorship by the proletariat.

Stalin continued his revolutionary activities and ended up being arrested a number of times and sent to Siberia. He escaped each time he was arrested. In 1912, while exiled in Siberia, he was contacted by Lenin and informed that he had been chosen to join the Central Committee. He promptly escaped from Siberia but he was soon arrested again after Stalin organized and began to publish the newspaper Pravda.

The cycle of arrests and escapes continued until 1917. When Czar Nicholas II abdicated the throne, a provisional government was put in place. The Bolsheviks (including Stalin) at first wanted to support the new government, but Lenin was able to convince them that they should push for the government’s overthrow.

The October Revolution

Although hesitant at first, Lenin, with the support of Stalin, was able to convince the party’s Central Committee to attempt the overthrow of the government. On October 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks began the revolution with the seizure of communications as well as government buildings. The country descended into civil war with the Bolsheviks, which became known as the Red Army, on one side and the White Army on the other. The White Army was made up of various factions which supported the monarchy, capitalism and other forms of socialism.

During the civil war, Stalin was given command of the Red Army’s forces in different areas. Stalin ruled each area he controlled with an iron fist and did not hesitate to throw his forces into battle with the White Army with little thought to the survival of his soldiers. Stalin believed that numerical superiority was the key to winning and he didn’t care if the Red Army suffered a high casualty rate as long as he was able to defeat the White Army forces.

When he was transferred to the Western Front, he used terror and violence to ensure people followed his orders. He held public executions and was even known to burn down houses of people he thought were traitors.

Stalin never actually became involved with the fighting himself. His method of fighting was to give the orders and let the troops do the actual fighting. He had no military experience or the desire to learn military strategy but he still insisted that he had to be in sole command of the forces in any area he was assigned to.

The Red Army won the civil war by the end of 1919 and Lenin wanted to expand the revolution into Poland. The Red Army attacked but the Polish forces were able to stop the invasion at Warsaw.

Lenin and StalinLenin and Stalin

Lenin and Stalin were often at odds about the direction the Central Committee should take although at other times, Lenin seemed to rely on Stalin. Lenin was worried that Stalin was trying to concentrate too much power into his hands. Lenin wanted Stalin to remain in the Central Committee but did not want him to hold the position of General Secretary.

When Lenin died in early 1924, Stalin began to solidify his power by replacing people within the party with people who were loyal to Stalin. Stalin was also able to get two of his main rivals, Trotsky and Zinoviev, expelled from the party.

Solidifying Power

Stalin started implementing a number of initiatives that were aimed at creating a communist state. He forced farmers to give up their grain and forced farms into collectives. He arrested industry officials and charged them with sabotage. The officials were beaten until they confessed their guilt. The Central Committee began to develop the first of many Five-Year Plans that would set quotas for industry output. Stalin created labour camps and sent anyone who was against him to the camps. He sent priests, traders and other people to the camps. He also held show trials to intimidate anyone who was sympathetic to the arrested individuals.

Stalin had control of the party and refused to let anyone criticize either himself or his policies. Criticism was considered treason and a personal betrayal. Party members who criticized Stalin were often arrested and kicked out of the party. Religion was outlawed and many churches were closed down. Private printing presses were no longer allowed to operate and travel to other countries was severely limited.

The Great Terror

The Great Terror was a purge of party members that Stalin viewed as rivals or not loyal enough. People were arrested and executed or sent to the labour camps. Stalin had complete control over the Central Committee and anyone who did not readily agree to his wishes was immediately replaced. Stalin would give quotas regarding how many people needed to be arrested and how many had to be sent to the labour camps. Between the years 1937 and 1938, around one and a half million people were arrested. Only two hundred thousand of the people who were arrested were released. The rest of the arrested were sent to labour camps or executed.

World War II

Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Germany which Stalin used to increase the territory under his control. Stalin ordered the invasion of Finland and brought Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia under his control.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler broke the non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. At first, Stalin didn’t believe that Hitler broke the treaty but realized it was a reality when the German ambassador delivered a declaration of war to the Soviet government.

Hitler’s forces advanced quickly into the Soviet Union and even though Stalin was made Supreme Commander on July 10, 1941, Stalin didn’t publicize this because he did not want to accept responsibility for the defeats the country faced.

Stalin would not listen to his commanders and he often ordered his forces to hold all territory, even when it would have been better to retreat. The army was not allowed to retreat unless specifically ordered to by the government. Any commander who retreated without orders faced severe punishment and any soldier who retreated was shot.

Stalin ordered all resources to be used to manufacture goods for the war and within six months, the Soviet Union had fifteen thousand aircraft and thirteen thousand tanks at its disposal. When the Germans were ready to attack Moscow, Stalin refused to leave the city and motivated the army and civilians to hold off the German attack although the Soviet forces suffered massive casualties.

Stalin started to listen to his military commanders more but he still did not trust them. He kept them under surveillance and had their living quarters bugged.

The Soviet forces were able to withstand the German invasion and were able to launch a counterattack into Germany. Stalin ordered a quick assault in an effort to gain as much territory as possible and the Soviets soon had the German army on the run.

Allied Meetings

Stalin met the other leaders of the Allied forces a number of times. The first meeting of the big three (Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill) occurred in 1943 (in Tehran) and then again in 1945 (at Yalta). At these meetings the strategy of winning the war was discussed as well as how post-war Germany would be governed and how Europe would be divided up after the war. Stalin was able to use the competing interests of the other Allied leaders to negotiate beneficial terms.

Stalin’s forces moved into Berlin in 1945 which resulted in the German surrender.

After the War

The alliance between Stalin and the other Allied powers quickly broke down after the war. Stalin disagreed with the Marshall Plan (a plan to use funds to help rebuild countries after the war) and viewed it as a way of undermining his control in Eastern Bloc countries.

The Western powers became focused on containing Stalin although they did accept that a number of countries were already under communist control. In 1948, Stalin put Berlin under a blockade and the Allied powers were forced to fly in needed supplies. In 1949, Stalin created Comecon which was to stand in opposition to NATO.


On February 28, 1953, Stalin had a party at his house and did not go to bed until 4:00 a.m. He went to bed and gave orders that he not be disturbed. In the morning, Stalin never showed and as the day progressed, there was no sign of Stalin. His guards were worried but too scared to disobey Stalin’s orders. They were too scared to open the door to check on him. When a package arrived from the Central Committee in the late evening, the guards were forced to open the door and found Stalin lying on the floor.

He had suffered a stroke and died four days later on March 5, 1953.