It is said that no person in history has had such a direct impact on the lives of so many as Joseph Stalin had during his lifetime. Born Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in the small town of Gori in Georgia, Stalin’s date of birth was the 18 December 1878 but for reasons that remain a mystery, Stalin always maintained he was born on 21 December 1879 and it is this date that was celebrated throughout his life.
His parents had had three sons, all of whom died during infancy. At the age of seven, Stalin contracted smallpox. Although he survived it left his face pockmarked, something that he was always self-conscious about. A childhood accident left his left arm shorter than his right and an accident involving a horse-drawn carriage hospitalized the young Stalin for months.
Stalin’s father, a cobbler, became alcoholic and increasingly abusive towards both his wife and son. Brought up speaking Georgian, Stalin only learnt to speak Russian when aged about nine but he never lost his strong Georgian accent. His mother, a deeply religious woman, enrolled her son into a church school. He graduated to the Tiflis Theological Seminary where, instead of reading his set theological texts, he secretly read the works of Karl Marx. In 1898, Stalin joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and the following year was expelled from the seminary for trying to convert his classmates to Marxism, although his mother claimed he left due to ill-health. For a while he worked as a clerk at the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory while becoming involved in organising strikes, writing articles for socialist newspapers and making revolutionary speeches. During this time he adopted the revolutionary name of Koba.
In 1901 Stalin avoided arrest and fled to the Georgian coastal town of Batumi where he worked at an oil refinery. There, in April 1902, Stalin was arrested after organizing a strike at the refinery. After spending 18 months in prison he was deported to Siberia.
Between 1902 and 1913, he was arrested six times by the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana. Following the split of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party into two factions – Bolshevik and Menshevik, Stalin, an admirer of the writings of Vladimir Lenin, allied himself to the Bolshevik cause. His work at undermining the Mensheviks within Georgia brought him to the attention of Lenin, and he first met the Bolshevik leader on 7 January 1906 at a Bolshevik conference in Tampere, Finland. Stalin, called the ‘wonderful Georgian’ by Lenin, was one of the only revolutionary leaders with a genuinely working class background.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Stalin was conscripted to join the Russian army but managed to evade duty because of his damaged left arm. During the February Revolution and the removal of the Tsar, Nicholas II, Stalin was still in exile, only returning to Petrograd the following month wearing the suit he had worn when he was arrested in 1913. He took over the editorship of the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, or ‘Truth’, and advocated accommodation with the new Provisional Government for which he was later criticized by Lenin.
Following the ‘July Days’ demonstration, Stalin helped Lenin escape first to the forests outside Petrograd, then to Finland, advising Lenin to shave off his trademark beard. During the Russian Civil War, Stalin successfully and brutally defended the city of Tsaritsyn (renamed Stalingrad in 1925, and now called Volgograd). He disagreed with Leon Trotsky, militarily his superior, over Trotsky’s policy of using the expertise of former officers from the Tsar’s army. Stalin had those under Trotsky’s command shot.
Following the October Revolution of 1917, Stalin’s influence increased. Lenin delegated numerous tasks to his eager protégé culminating in April 1922 with Stalin’s appointment as General Secretary of the Communist Party. But Lenin began to regret his decision and Stalin’s speedy rise through the party hierarchy believing Stalin to lack the necessary tact and skill for such a post. In December 1922, Lenin penned a memorandum, his Testament, suggesting Stalin’s removal from power. The other man Lenin had in mind as his successor was Stalin’s great rival Trotsky. Together with Trotsky, Lenin was planning to use the party congress in April 1923 as his opportunity to have Stalin removed. But in March, Lenin suffered a stroke, his third, which confined him to home and effectively ended his political career.
On 21 January 1924, Lenin died. Following his death, two leading Bolsheviks, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, sided with Stalin, from whom they felt they had nothing to fear, and helped suppress Lenin’s memorandum and sideline Trotsky, eventually forcing his removal from the Central Committee, the party and eventually the country.
But if Kamenev and Zinoviev thought they could tame the Georgian beast they were wrong. Stalin sided with Nikolai Bukharin to have them removed from the party before turning on Bukharin as well. Between 1936 and 1938 Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin were all put on show trial accused of ridiculous charges, sentenced and executed. Among the confessions wrung out of them, was that they had been responsible for organising the assassination, in December 1934, of Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s man in Leningrad. Kirov had been viewed as a possible successor or even alternative to Stalin and Stalin is assumed to have sanctioned his removal himself.
Although Stalin’s role during 1917 was important, it was very much that of a supporting role. Trotsky scathingly called Stalin the ‘man who missed the revolution’. Stalin devoted much energy rewriting history to exaggerate his role and diminish that of Trotsky. The 1927 film October, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, depicting the events of the October Revolution, rightly placed Lenin and Trotsky centre stage. But Stalin ordered Eisenstein to re-edit the film and portray Trotsky’s role as minimal and cowardly, and to re-emphasise his own role. In one scene, we see Trotsky, depicted as an archetypal sinister Jew, hiding in a doorway while the revolutionaries courageously seize power. The book on which the film was based, Ten Days That Shook the World, by US author, John Reed, a book much hailed by Lenin, was likewise criticised for supposedly exaggerating Trotsky’s role. Stalin ordered the book banned and existing copies pulped.
Joseph Stalin married twice. His first wife, Ekaterina ‘Kato’ Svanidze, died of tuberculosis on 5 December 1907, aged 22. They had one son, Yakov, who was to die as a German prisoner-of-war in April 1943. His second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, committed suicide on 9 November 1932. They had two children, Vasily, who died an alcoholic in March 1962 and Svetlana Alliluyeva who, in 1967, emigrated to the US, dying, aged 85, on 22 November 2011.
Rupert Colley’s novel, The Black Maria, a chilling tale set in Stalin’s Moscow, is now available.