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1878 -1953

Source: Peter Gorin.
May 2001.


Soviet statesman, head of the government and a leader of the Communist party in 1920s - 1950s. Iosif Vissarionovich Jugashvili (Stalins’s real name) was born on 21st December 1878, to a poor shoemaker family in Georgia, then a remote Caucasus province of the Russian Empire. Apparently due to the introduction of a modern calendar in Russia (1918) with two weeks difference in dates, Stalin’s year of birth later was often quoted as 1879.

Five years of religious schooling was the only formal education he has ever received. Yet he devoted much time to reading and self-education. From his youth, Stalin was involved in a revolutionary movement in the ranks of the illegal Russian Social-Democratic Party. In 1903 he joined the left-wing fraction of this party, better known as "Bolsheviks." Like many other revolutionaries, he acquired several pseudonyms, one of which--Stalin (a man of steel)--later became his official surname.

As a revolutionary antigovernment conspirator, Stalin was arrested six times by the imperial police and was exiled. In 1912, the Bolsheviks’ leader, Vladimir I. Ulyanov (Lenin), promoted Stalin to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party. However, prior to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Stalin was neither well-known, nor popular among the fellow revolutionaries and his role in the Russian revolutionary movement was insignificant.

His ascent to power started in the early 1920s after the Russian Civil War and a formation of the Soviet Union (USSR). In 1922, Stalin was appointed to a newly-established position of the Secretary General of the Bolshevik Communist party, the seemingly subsidiary desk job for control over documentation and personnel matters. Yet he skilfully used this position to implement Lenin’s idea of a total Communist party control through the trusted party members installed into key positions all around the country. That gave Stalin a crucial leverage in a power struggle inside the Communist party following Lenin’s death in 1924. By 1929, Stalin emerged as an unrivalled dictator with limitless powers, having all his opponents disgraced and demoted. Later, he ordered to murder them all.

Official propaganda created Stalin’s personality cult, treating him as a living God. New, alternative history of the revolution was introduced where Stalin played central role. Any deviation from the "political correctness" was prohibited, any dissent was immediately suppressed. Stalin’s system of ideological brainwashing became a model for George Orwell’s classic fiction novel "1984."

Stalin is mostly remembered for an unprecedented campaign of purges (also known as the "Great Terror") that accompanied his policy of a forceful centralization and modernization of the Soviet industry and agriculture in the 1930s. The entire class of small farmers was brutally destroyed and private land was confiscated. By Stalin’s own account, ten million people lost their lives. Other three million were subjected to a slave labour in the GULAG* concentration camps. At a pinnacle of the Great Terror (1937 - 1938), Stalin ordered the destruction of the top Armed Forces leadership, critically weakening the USSR defence capability.

Considering himself a great visionary, Stalin often made decisions based on his assumptions, rather than facts. One of his greatest blunders was a gross miscalculation of German intentions. Hoping to buy additional time for war preparation against Germany, Stalin stunned the world by signing the nonaggression pact with Hitler (1939). Until the last moment, he stubbornly ignored numerous warnings of the imminent German aggression.

During the war with Germany (1941 - 1945), Stalin occupied all top positions in the USSR establishment: along with being the Communist party Secretary General, he simultaneously was the Prime-Minister, Defence Commissar (minister), Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief and the Chairman of the State Defence Committee. He personally supervised all operations of the Soviet Armed Forces, creating yet another myth of his "military genius." In reality, however, Stalin just allowed his generals to prepare military campaigns in a professional manner after several devastating defeats, that had resulted from his improper interference. Stalin also demonstrated diplomatic talent, skilfully persuading the United States President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime-Minister Winston Churchill to form an alliance with the Soviet Union against Germany and to provide military supplies to the USSR.

Stalin always paid utmost attention to military industry, directly supervising nomenclature of military materiel, procurement and production schedules. Despite the war efforts, he ordered the fundamental research in nuclear weapons in 1942. That research along with espionage on American nuclear project allowed the USSR to obtain the atomic bomb in 1949. On the 13th May 1946, Stalin authorized a top secret decree, "The Issues of Reactive Weapons," launching a massive development of missile technology. This date is celebrated in Russia as the birthday of the modern rocket-space industry.

An ascetic loner and a "workaholic," Stalin spent long hours in his office, often working late at night. That forced the entire government apparatus to work accordingly. He never had a happy family life, his first wife died early, while the second wife committed suicide. Stalin’s older son (from the first marriage), Yakov Jugashvili, the Red Army officer, became a prisoner of war and died in a German concentration camp. Stalin reportedly refused to exchange him for the German Field-Marshal von Paulus, captured by the Red Army in 1943. Younger son, Vasili Stalin, flew combat missions as a fighter pilot and quickly grew up in ranks from a Lieutenant to a Lieutenant General in just eight years. After Stalin’s death, Vasili was demoted and jailed for an alleged power abuse. He eventually died of alcoholism in exile. Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alilluyeva, obtained the world’s notoriety after her sudden defection to the USA in 1967 and a publication of a book about her farther. She lives in Great Britain avoiding any publicity.

Although he had never been in a regular military service, Stalin accepted the highest military rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1943. After victory in World War II, he was also awarded the unusual title of the Generalissimo of the Soviet Union (1945). His top state awards included two Gold Stars of the Hero of the Soviet Union and the Hero of Socialist Labour, two Orders of Lenin, two Orders of Victory, Order of Suvorov and three Orders of the Combat Red Banner.

Stalin unexpectedly died of a stroke on the 5th March 1953, at the age of 74.

To the present day, Stalin remains one of the most controversial figures in Russian history. Many people in Russia still see him not as a bloody dictator but as a strong ruler, who introduced the so-much-needed order and discipline and promoted the Soviet Union to the superpower status.

* GULAG — an official abbreviation of the Prison Camps’ Chief Directorate, a unit of the Interior Commissariat (NKVD) in the 1930s-1940s. The word "gulags," that is widely used in Western literature on Russia, is incorrect.

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