Stalin, Joseph 1879-1953
(Born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili) Soviet dictator.
Stalin led the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as absolute dictator for twenty-four years. While he is credited with transforming the USSR into a world superpower, Stalin's use of mass execution—called "purgings"—and terror made him one of the most reviled political figures in history. As a writer and editor at the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, as well as the author of books and articles, Stalin contributed to the body of works delineating Soviet ideology. However, critics are divided over the importance of his writings; some maintain that Stalin simply regurgitated Marxist doctrine as it had already been interpreted by Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik movement. Nonetheless, Stalin created for himself as leader a supreme status that gave rise to a cult-like following despite his renowned tyranny.
Stalin was born in the small town of Gori, in czarist Georgia, in 1879. His father, a poor shoemaker, was an abusive alcoholic who was killed in a brawl when Stalin was eleven years old. His mother was an illiterate peasant who, after his father's death, prepared Stalin to enter the Orthodox priesthood. Stalin entered the Tiflis Theological Seminary when he was fourteen, but he was expelled in 1899 because of his involvement in a revolutionary anti-czarist group. In 1901 he officially joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party. A year later he was arrested and sent to a prison in Siberia, from which he escaped in 1904, returning to the underground Marxist movement in Tiflis. When Russian Marxism split into two factions—the radical Bolsheviks and the more moderate Menshiviks—Stalin sided with the Bolsheviks, thus aligning himself with Lenin and other major party leaders. Beginning in 1905 he attended several international conferences of the Russian Social Democrats, where he was first introduced to Lenin. In the following years Stalin was arrested and imprisoned on several instances; each time he escaped. In 1912 he went to Vienna to study Marxism; at that time he wrote Marxism and the National Question. The following year he began writing for the party newspaper Pravda, under the pseudonym Joseph Stalin, which means "man of steel." During the Russian Revolution of 1917 Stalin concentrated his efforts at the paper's editorial offices, rather than taking part directly in the events. In fact, most historians agree that Stalin played a rather insignificant role in the first years following the revolution; he was appointed People's Commissar for Nationalities and was a military commissar during the civil war of 1918-1921. Although Lenin valued Stalin for his organizational abilities and appointed him to the post of general secretary, a powerful position, Stalin's emphasis on Russian nationalism made Lenin uncomfortable. Leon Trotsky also quarreled with Stalin on policy and theoretical issues at this time; Lenin usually sided with Trotsky, but as general secretary Stalin's position of power was secure. Lenin, before his death, allegedly warned other party members about Stalin's potential for abusing power but was too ill to take action. Lenin died in 1924, and within five years Stalin had total control of the party. His first act was to extinguish Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP)—intended to introduce a limited amount of free trade to the Soviet system in order to revive the economy after the civil war—and replace it with his own policy of collectivization, which nationalized the agricultural industry. Collectivization was an unmitigated disaster: peasants who refused to turn over their livestock and farms to the state were executed or sent to Stalin's prison work camps, called gulags. With agricultural production cut in half, mass famine ensued, and at least three to ten million peasants died of starvation. Stalin denied blame for the failure of collectivization, accusing others of misunderstanding his directives. His other major goal was to introduce widespread industrialization to the USSR, in order to move the country from an agriculture-based to an industry-based economy. In this he succeeded—initiating the machinery that would eventually make the Soviet Union a superpower nation—in large part because of the slave labor provided by the millions of Soviet citizens imprisoned in the gulags. Around 1934 Stalin launched the period that would be known as the Great Terror. Throughout the 1930s about one million old Bolshevik party members (those who had taken part in the pre-Stalin revolutionary era) and countless millions of citizens were accused of sabotage, treason, and espionage and were arrested, tortured, and either executed or sent to the gulags. This massive effort to ensure Stalin's absolute power was called "purging." Dramatic purge trials of party officials and senior members of the Red Army were set up. Defendants were accused of treason and other trumped-up charges and were always found guilty. The purging of the army had particularly devastating effects when the Soviet Union became involved in World War II. Stalin signed a Non-Aggression Pact with German dictator Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1939. The Pact included secret plans for the two leaders to control the European territories each considered essential to his country's expansion. But when Germany invaded Poland in September of that year, Stalin sought to increase the Soviet Union's presence in western Europe by invading Finland in November; Finland surrendered, and in June of 1941 Hitler broke his Pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, which, because of the military purgings, suffered devastating losses for nearly two years. Historians are divided over the degree of Stalin's success as a military commander during the German invasion. Many blame the huge Soviet losses on his increasing paranoia and megalomania. Nonetheless, the Red Army did hold off the Germans until they surrendered in 1945. After the war Stalin moved quickly to seize control of Eastern European countries to create the Soviet bloc. In 1949 the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, ushering in the arms race and Cold War with the United States that would last into the late 1980s. In 1953 Stalin was planning another series of purges, this time because of an alleged traitorous plot among the mostly Jewish Kremlin physicians. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage before the new purge trials could take place.
Stalin produced a number of works on Soviet ideology—including Marxism and the National Question, Marxism and Linguistics, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, and his collected lectures on Foundations of Leninism—but whether or not he added anything new or innovative to theoretical communism is debatable. Many critics consider his writing unoriginal and repetitive. He did, however, transform Soviet communism, in his writings and his practices, from a revolutionary system to a strategy of conservative, isolationist authoritarianism. His talent for propaganda allowed him to establish an astonishingly effective cult of personality despite his reputation for brute violence. By neutralizing anyone he considered or suspected of being an enemy, Stalin opened an avenue to total control of both his party and his people, whether they were followers or not. Pictures and statues of him were placed in all public places, as well as in private Soviet homes. His writings were studied, and poems and songs were written to glorify him. He encouraged his image as "Father of the Soviet People" and the "Great Teacher," and, after the Germans were driven out of the USSR in World War II, he exploited the role of savior of his country. After his death Stalin was still revered by Soviet citizens, many of whom wept openly when they heard he had died. Although he continued to receive credit for advancing Soviet society into the technological age to successfully compete with other world powers, in 1956 his successor Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders officially denounced Stalin and his actions. His policies were directly responsible for the deaths of as many as thirty million Soviets.
Discuss the origins of Stalin's Marxist political philosophy.
Stalin adopted Marxism while in the Seminary, and remained committed to it (at least officially) all his life. It was not uncommon for young men of the intellectual class, or "intelligentsia," to adopt revolutionary ideologies in the repressive climate of Tsarist Russia, and Marxism, named for the German thinker Karl Marx, was the most influential of these ideologies. In brief, Marx declared that human history was determined by class warfare. In an industrial society, he claimed, the triumph of the middle class, or bourgeoisie, was followed by the rise of a proletariat, or laboring class. Wealth, in this world-view, was concentrated in bourgeois hands at the expense of the ever-more-impoverished working class--an intolerable situation that would inevitably lead to revolution and the establishment of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." This in turn would prelude a utopia in which all class distinctions would be abolished, and with it poverty itself. The appeal of Marxism lay in its claim to being scientific: it claimed to have discovered the objective "laws" of history, in which revolutions could be accurately predicted given certain conditions. Unfortunately, this notion of Marx's "infallibility" would lead to disastrous consequences, as it forced an all-or-nothing adherence; Marxist regimes were driven to follow disastrous policies, for to repudiate one point of the ideology was logically to repudiate it all: Stalin's Five-Year Plan and collectivization horror figured most prominently among these deadly disasters.
Why did the Revolution of 1917 succeed?
The Russian Revolution was a two-part phenomenon. The fall of the Tsars, in March 1917, was simple to explain: Nicholas II was a weak-willed monarch, his advisors had prosecuted the war badly, the populace detested his German wife, and Russia was long overdue for political reform. Few observers were surprised when protests toppled the Tsar and ushered in a nominally representative government. What is less easily understood is how this Provisional Government was, in turn, toppled by a Bolshevik coup in November 1917--and more to the point, how Lenin and his followers managed to hold power over such a vast area as Russia. Several answers may be suggested: first, there was great sympathy for socialism and Marxism among the Russian people, sufficient enough to give the Bolsheviks a broad base of popular support that eluded the Provisional Government and the Whites (the opponents of the "Reds"). Second, the war against the Reds was mismanaged--several times, the Whites had an opportunity to topple Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but they alienated the peasantry with atrocities and more importantly, failed to achieve a united command among their leaders. This blundering contrasted sharply with the smooth internal administration of the Bolsheviks, who found a great organizer and military leader in Trotsky, and who showed a surprising resilience. They had, in a word, more discipline than their opponents, and it was discipline that won the civil war.
Analyze Stalin's rise to power in the 1920s.
Like any incredibly successful politician, Stalin was lucky. He was lucky that Lenin died when he did, because otherwise Trotsky's position in the Soviet state would have become so strong as to withstand his attack. He was lucky, too, that he was not ousted immediately after Lenin's death, as Lenin's Testament had advised. But he also showed an amazing ability to play his opponents off one another until he was powerful enough to stand on his own: first, he allied with the "Leftists," Zinoviev and Kamenev to diminish Trotsky's power; then, with Trotsky's star in eclipse, he turned on the "Leftists," forming an alliance with Bukharin and the other "Rightists" to defeat Zinoviev and Kamenev and drive them out of the Communist Party. All the while, Stalin was building up his own base of support, so that within a year of the elimination of the "Leftists" he was ready to challenge, and defeat, Bukharin and take over supreme power himself. His enemies failed because they never understood that his motivations were different from theirs--while they cared about principles and policy, all that mattered to Stalin was power.
Discuss the political climate in Russia during Stalin's youth.
Why did Stalin ally with Hitler in 1939? Was the Nazi-Soviet Pact a sound strategic choice?
Discuss the ideological roots of the persecution of the kulaks.
How did Stalin maintain and reinforce his own power in the 1930s?
In what ways was the Cold War a natural corollary of Stalin's will to power? How was it an extension of Marxist ideology?
What was the difference between the New Economic Policy and the Five-Year Plan? Which was more successful?
Discuss Stalin's life in the context of this century. How will he be remembered in the future?