Josif Vissarionovich Stalin, 1879–1953

Born Josif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in Gori, Georgia, he attended a theological seminary in Tiflis (Tbilisi) in 1894–9, but was expelled for socialist activities. Known under the alias of Koba (Untameable), he was exiled to Siberia in 1903. Three other sentences of banishment for illegal communist activity were to follow. In 1912, he took the name Stalin (Steel). After the Bolshevik take-over of November 1917, he became commissar (minister) for nationality affairs in 1917–23 and state control in 1917–22. He was elected a member of the Political Committee of the Russian Communist Party in 1919. In 1922, he became general secretary of the Central Committee, but this did not become the highest function in the party until after Lenin’s death in 1924. While obtaining sole control, he attacked his opponents in the party with brutality. The most dangerous of these was Leon Trotsky, against whom he erected a ‘troika’ of himself, Grigory Yevseyevich Zinoviev and Lev Borisovich Kamenev, declaring the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’. In 1927, he removed both Trotsky and his two fellow troika members from the leadership. In 1928, it was the turn of Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin and his associates, who had supported Stalin hitherto. He then declared the first five-year economic plan, collectivization of land, and the goal of turning the Soviet Union into a great industrial power through forced development of heavy industry. Stalin’s Byzantine-style cult of personality began to shape up in the early 1930s. In 1935, he began to pursue an open reign of terror, in which he dealt with his main political opponents in a series of great show trials. Hundreds of thousands of people were executed at his command or in the light of his decisions and millions more were herded into forced-labour camps. The theoretical basis for the mass terror was the perceived need to ‘heighten the class war’. In 1939, Stalin made a pact with Nazi Germany, under which the Soviet Union annexed the Eastern half of Poland, the Baltic states and Bessarabia (from Romania). In May 1941, Stalin assumed the post of chairman of the Council of Commissars (prime minister) in addition to his positions in the CPSU. Germany invaded its former Soviet ally in 1941, forcing Stalin into alliance with the Western powers. Thus the Soviet Union became one of the victors in the Second World War, occupying Berlin and breaking up Nazi Germany. After the war, Stalin turned most of the countries ‘liberated’ by Soviet forces into satellites, including Hungary. By 1947, Stalin viewed the outbreak of a third world war as inevitable and began arming at a forced pace, compelling the satellite countries to contribute. In his final years, the persecution complex long apparent in Stalin became an overriding trait. He suspected conspiracies against him everywhere and restarted the machinery of show trials. However, his death in May 1953 came before the trials could take place and the accused were freed again. Stalinism, the system of rule named after him, had been copied faithfully in the Hungary of Rákosi and in other Soviet-bloc states. It became more refined after his death, in the Soviet Union and the satellite countries, but the system of state and the methods of imposing it remained basically unchanged.

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This page was created: Wednesday, 23-Aug-2000
Last updated: Wednes, 12-Sept-2001
Copyright © 2000 The Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

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