Born as Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on 18 December 1878 (old style 6 December) in a Georgian peasant village of Gori, Joseph Stalin, one of the towering figures of the 20th century, was the son of Besarion Jughashvili, a poor and alcoholic cobbler and Ketevan Geladze, a washerwoman. At the early age of seven, he contracted smallpox, which left scars on his face.
He was also injured after a few years, which slightly deformed his left arm. Probably for his physical defects, he used to be treated cruelly by the other village children, which implanted a sense of inferiority in him and developed a cruel streak for those who crossed him. His religious mother wanted him to be a priest and in 1895 sent him to a seminary in the Georgian capital of Tiflis. However, he rebelled against studying scripture, instead started reading the secret writings of Karl Marx and joined a local socialist group. Consequently, he became an atheist, and in 1899 was expelled from the seminary for failing to turn up for his exams.
After leaving school, Joseph started to take part in labour demonstrations and strikes and evaded arrest many times by using aliases and sleeping in different apartments. Finally, he joined the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin and became involved in various criminal activities, including bank robberies, to help fund the Bolshevik Party .In 1906, he married Ekaterina Svanidze, a seamstress, who gave birth to their son the following year. However, after the Tiflis bank robbery in 1907, Joseph and his family moved to Baku in Azerbaijan to escape the Tsarist forces. Unfortunately, Ekaterina died of typhus in the same year and her death had a profound effect on Joseph. He left his son to be cared for by his wife’s parents and rarely saw them again, fully immersing himself in his revolutionary activities. During that time, he adopted the name 'Stalin' which means 'steel' in Russian, was arrested on a number of occasions and exiled to Siberia in 1910.
In 1919, Stalin married Nadezhda Sergeevna Alliluyeva, the youngest child of Russian revolutionary Sergei Alliluyev, who sheltered him after one of his escapes from Siberian exile during 1911. They had two children, a boy and a girl and after the revolution, Nadezhda worked as a confidential code clerk in Lenin’s office. She committed suicide in her early 30s. It is interesting to note that, apart from his legal children, Stalin also fathered several children out of wedlock.
In 1912, while in exile in Switzerland, Lenin co-opted Stalin to serve on the first Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, which was his first political promotion. He was also tasked by Lenin to convert the Bolshevik weekly newspaper, Zvezda (Star) into a daily, Pravda (Truth). Stalin launched the new newspaper in April of the same year, before his longest period of exile in Siberia from July 1913 to March 1917.
After his return to Petrograd from Siberia, he briefly advocated Bolshevik cooperation with the provisional government of middle-class liberals, succeeding the abdication of the Tsar during the February Revolution. But, soon switched to the more-militant policy of armed seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and during the coup d’etat of November 1917 (old style, October), he played an important role, apart from the most prominent role of his chief rival, Leon Trotsky. During that time, he held two ministerial posts in the new Bolshevik government, but meanwhile, he had continued to move up the party ladder and in 1922 became secretary general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which provided the power base for his dictatorship. In addition to that, he was heading the secretariat and was also the most important member of the powerful Politburo. From 1921, he even started to openly flout the ailing Lenin’s wishes. By that time, everything was clear to Lenin and a year before his death, he wrote a political testament, urging for the immediate removal of Stalin from the post of the secretary. Though it was a potential threat to Stalin’s career, he managed to overcome it with his usual luck, skill and intelligence.
After the demise of Lenin in 1924, Stalin ruthlessly started to promote himself as the sole political heir of the deceased leader. He intended to transform the country from a peasant society into an industrial superpower, as he felt that unless the Soviet Union is mordernised, Communism will fail and the country will be devoured by the capitalist nations. He enforced collectivization of Soviet agriculture and those who refused to cooperate were shot or exiled or absorbed in Stalinist concentration camps and worked to death under atrocious conditions. Collectivization caused widespread famine across the Soviet Union, especially in Ukraine, that killed millions of peasants. On the other hand, the factories were given strict targets to increase the productivity of coal, oil and steel, which many found impossible to fulfill. Those who failed were marked as saboteurs and were imprisoned or executed as enemies of the state.
Stalin intentionally built a cult of personality around himself, renamed Tsaritsyn as Stalingrad in 1921 and his name became a part of the Soviet national anthem. He ruled by terror and started to eliminate anyone who might oppose him. He dismissed his powerful political rivals. Rykov and Bukharin followed Kamenev and Zinovyev into disgrace and political limbo pending execution. Even Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 and Stalin had him assassinated in Mexico in 1940. Gradually, Stalin became increasingly paranoid and during the second half of the 1930s, he institutes the Great Purge, in the name of saving the Communist Party and the military from anyone, whom he considered a threat. The power of the secret police was greatly expanded and people were encouraged to spy on each other. During that time, 93 of the 139 Central Committee members were killed and 81 of the 103 generals and admirals were executed. Apart from that, around three million people were accused of opposing Communism and sent to the gulag, a system of labour camps in Siberia and around 750,000 people were summarily killed.
After the failure of the first attempt to form an anti-Hitler alliance with the Western powers in August 1939, Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with the German dictator Adolf Hitler and annexed the eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and parts of Romania. He also launched an attack on Finland. However, he ignored the warnings from the Americans, the British and his own intelligence agents about the probable attack by his palpably treacherous new German ally. Hitler’s unprovoked blitzkrieg attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, exposed Stalin’s incompetent prewar defensive measures. As the German troops advanced towards the Moscow, he remained in the threatened capital and directed a scorched earth defensive policy, destroying enemy’s supply line. Hitler attacked Stalingrad, the city bearing Stalin’s name to humiliate him, but the German army was finally defeated in February 1943. The Soviet army, under Stalin’s supreme direction, also defeated them in the subsequent Battle of Kursk in the month of August, turning the tide of invasion against the retreating Germans.
During the last phase of the Great War, Stalin participated in the major Allied conferences of the ‘Big Three’ with the British Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt of the USA in Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945) and Potsdam (1945), where he outwitted the others with his superior skill.
Stalin plays a decisive role in Germany’s defeat and after the end of the Great War, he imposed a new type of colonial control based on native Communist regimes, on East Europe. His former allies America and Britain now become his rivals, as he blocked entry to allied-occupied West Berlin, aiming to starve the Western Allies out of the city. In reply, the United States and its allies supplied their sectors of the city from the air, known as the Berlin Airlift, which lasted around a year, after which the Soviets called off the blockade. However, Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia embarrassed Stalin, when in 1948 he defected from the Soviet camp. As it was a severe blow to the world of Communism, Stalin took severe actions, manipulated like those of the Great Purge of the 1930s and many satellite Communist leaders, alleged to be supporters of Tito, were brutally executed. On 29 August 1949, Stalinist Russia exploded its first atomic bomb, signaling its arrival as the world’s second nuclear power, as well as the advent of the Cold War.
During the last phase of his life, Stalin became increasingly suspicious and continued to conduct purges against his enemies within the Party. After a night of heavy drinking, Stalin died of a stroke on 5 March 1953, at the age of 74. His embalmed body was kept on display next to Vladimir Lenin in Moscow’s Red Square. Eight years later, in 1961, the body was removed from the tomb and buried near the Kremlin walls, as part of the de-Stalinization process initiated by Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev.