Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili
By, George W. Simmonds, University of Detroit
"Those who cast the votes decide nothing.
Those who count the votes decide everything."
Joseph Stalin, Russian political leader, who was the undisputed leader of the USSR from 1929 until his death. He helped to convert communism in the USSR from an egalitarian, revolutionary movement into an authoritarian, bureaucratic governmental system. He helped to turn Russia into a great industrial nation, to defeat Hitler in World War II, and, after the war, to establish Communist regimes throughout eastern Europe. At the same time, however, he institutionalized terror and was responsible for the death and deprivation of millions of people.
One of the towering figures in world politics in his time, he still remains one of the least known, primarily because of the traditional secrecy surrounding Soviet leaders. His personality and rule were--and still are--highly controversial, opinion ranging from complete, unbridled adulation expressed in the official Soviet press of his day to widespread denunciation as a pathological despot by many in the Western world.
Stalin, whose original name was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, was born on Dec. 21, 1879 (all dates in New Style), in the Caucasian town of Gori, Georgia. He was the only one of four children to survive infancy. His father, Vissarion Dzhugashvili, an unsuccessful cobbler, entered a factory in Tiflis, took to drink, and died in 1890 from wounds received in a brawl. However, his mother, Yekaterina, kept the family together by taking in washing and sewing, hiring out for housework, and nursing young Joseph through various sicknesses including smallpox and septicemia, which left his left arm slightly crippled for life. An illiterate peasant girl herself, Yekaterina was deeply religious, puritanical, ambitious, and intent on securing for her son training for the priesthood, one of the few careers in which the non-Russian Georgian poor might easily rise to higher station. He was enrolled in the local Orthodox parochial school in Gori in 1888.
Obviously able, he won a free scholarship in 1894 to the Orthodox theological seminary in Tiflis. There he succumbed to the radicalism traditional among the students of the school and in his fourth year joined Mesame Dasi, a secret group espousing Georgian nationalism and socialism. Expelled from the seminary in May 1899, when he was about to graduate, he first tried tutoring and then clerical work at the Tiflis Observatory. But he abandoned his clerical job in May 1901, when he was about to be arrested. Although he came to reject his church training, it left a mark on his style, which tended toward the liturgical and was characterized by dry, categorical assertion.
The young Dzhugashvili joined the Social Democratic party of Georgia in 1901 and plunged full-time into revolutionary work, serving first in Tiflis and then in Batum, where he helped organize strikes and demonstrations. Thus began a life of dedicated privation. He lived and wrote under a succession of pseudonyms, of which his favorites were Koba (the name of a legendary Georgian folk hero meaning "The Indomitable) and, after 1913, Stalin ("The Man of Steel). In 1901 his first articles appeared in the clandestine periodical Brdzola (The Struggle), published in Baku. He was arrested for the first time in Batum on April 18, 1902, and exiled to Siberia in 1903, only to escape and reappear in Tiflis in 1904--a pattern that he experienced many times prior to 1917.
Dzhugashvili--unlike many of his fellow conspirators, who particularly valued intellectual brilliance and mastery of the written and spoken word--began to show a special interest in practical problems and party organization. This predilection led him to join the handful of Georgian Socialists who backed Bolshevism, as Lenin's conception of a highly disciplined, centralized conspiratorial Socialist party came to be called, and he helped propagate Lenin's views in the local clandestine press. He was not yet sufficiently prominent, however, to attend the founding meeting of the Georgian Bolshevik organization in 1904 or the third national congress of the Social Democratic party in April 1905.
In June 1904 he married Yekaterina Svanidze, a simple, devout peasant girl who was devoted to him. The marriage, evidently a happy one, was typical of the more conventional unions that Georgian radicals, unlike their Russian counterparts, usually contracted. His wife died on April 10, 1907, leaving a son, Yakov (Jacob). Thus by 1905, Dzhugashvili led the life of a typical fledgling provincial revolutionary, hardly the heroic role ascribed to him later in the official Soviet histories.
The Russian revolution of 1905 speeded his rise to local prominence and marked his entrance into the fringes of the national movement. In 1905 he served as party organizer in Tiflis and as co-editor of the Tiflis-based Caucasian Workers' Newssheet. For the first time his articles were readily identifiable by their exegetical style and rabid defense of Bolshevism. Dzhugashvili also helped to organize robberies of government transports in Georgia, providing the Bolsheviks with badly needed funds. In 1907 he shifted his base to Baku, where the exploited workers in the oil industry provided the Bolsheviks with their most extensive support in all of the Caucasus. For the next four years he alternated between vigorous revolutionary activity and spells in prison and exile in northern Russia. He entered the national scene serving as delegate from the Caucasus to the first national conference of Bolsheviks, in Tammerfors, Finland, in December 1905 (where he first met Lenin) and to the general congresses of the Russian Social Democratic party in Stockholm (1906) and London (1907).
In December 1911, Stalin was exiled to Vologda. In January 1912, Lenin and his closest followers, having decided to break with the Mensheviks in the party, met in Prague and elected a new ruling body or central committee. Although Dzhugashvili was not elected, Lenin personally co-opted him into that body and also appointed him one of the leaders for underground work in Russia. In March 1912, Dzhugashvili, having escaped from exile, arrived in St. Petersburg and helped set up Pravda, the new newspaper of the Bolsheviks, which first appeared on May 5, 1912. He attended party meetings in Cracow in late 1912 and then joined Lenin in Vienna during January and February 1913 in order to write, under the latter's supervision, an important study, Marxism and the National Problem, embodying the Bolsheviks' stand on the minority races. On March 7, 1913, after his return to St. Petersburg, he was arrested and deported to Siberia.
Thus Stalin (the name by which he was to be known henceforth) had reached the inner circle of leaders of the Bolshevik wing of the party, not by virtue of intellectual brilliance or personal gifts, but because Lenin wanted an organizer and a self-reliant, fanatical man of action. He was relatively unknown outside of Lenin's wing of the party and played no important role in Georgia. Unlike the other leading old Bolsheviks, Stalin had spent little time abroad and preferred to take even his long exile (1913-1917) in Siberia. Unlike his fellow exiles, he sought seclusion there, spending his time hunting and fishing.
The Czar's abdication on March 15, 1917, led to even greater social and political chaos in Russia. In this setting Stalin, overshadowed by Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and many lesser Bolsheviks who were great orators and creative revolutionaries, moved cautiously and concentrated on party tasks. After returning from exile to Petrograd on March 25, 1917, he joined the editorial board of Pravda, which was then headed by Lev Kamenev. As a senior party member, he chaired on April 11 a national conference of Bolshevik delegates at which he, being still uncertain which direction the revolution would take, urged cautious cooperation with the existing temporary successor government. For the first time, he was elected one of nine members to the party's central committee, gaining the third-largest vote.
However, after Lenin's return to Russia in April, Stalin accepted the former's view of the necessity for the overthrow of the temporary Russian government, withdrawal from the war, and social revolution. Stalin played a modest role in the unfolding revolutionary drama, however. In addition to intensive party work, he continued as an editor of Pravda, helped organize Lenin's temporary exile after the abortive July uprising, and, in the absence of the more prominent leaders, chaired the sixth Bolshevik party congress. He backed Lenin fully in the great party debates in September and October, urging Bolshevik seizure of power. But he had little to do with preparing and prosecuting the insurrection itself. The central role fell to Trotsky as head of the military committee of the Petrograd Soviet.
In the new Soviet regime, established on Nov. 7, 1917, Stalin received the relatively minor cabinet post of commissar (minister) for nationalities, which he held for the next five years. In this capacity he issued decrees, handled the affairs of Russia's minority nationalities, and helped draw up the first Soviet constitutions of 1918 and 1924. Like most of the other leaders, he served in a variety of positions after the outbreak of the civil war in June 1918, such as acting inspector general of the Red Army and as a political commissar. With Grigori Ordzhonikidze, a fellow Georgian, he initiated, in February 1921, the brutal re-conquest of independent Georgia. These duties imbued him with a lifelong absorption in military affairs, but they also led to an intense rivalry with the brilliant commissar for war, Trotsky.
On March 24, 1919, Stalin married his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, the 16-year-old daughter of an old Georgian revolutionary friend, Sergo Alliluyev. She bore him two children: Vasili (1919) and Svetlana (1925).
Stalin's real influence during these years derived from his being one of a small number of central committee members who never deviated from Lenin's policies or lost the latter's confidence. He joined Lenin, Kamenev, Trotsky, and Krestinsky in March 1919 on the newly formed inner directorate of the party, the Politburo. While the others concentrated on the making of policy, Stalin increasingly dealt with party affairs and occupied ever more important party posts. Thus he headed, in 1919, the Workers' and Peasants' Inspectorate, which had power to investigate every official in the country; in 1921, the Organizational Bureau (Orgburo), which appointed and dismissed party members; and, from 1922, the whole party administration itself, in the newly created post of secretary general. Consequently he was in a powerful position in the intricate struggle for preeminence that ensued after Lenin's death in 1924. Cooperating with Kamenev and Zinoviev, two of the chief members of the Politburo, Stalin managed, by 1925, to oust Trotsky, who had been generally regarded as Lenin's successor, and then, by 1926, Kamenev and Zinoviev themselves.
The civil war from 1918 to 1921 had a traumatic effect on the new regime. It had led to comprehensive nationalization of the economy and, politically, to the establishment of virtual one-party rule, harsh repression of opponents of the regime, abolition of freedom of expression and association, and the growth of centralized party bureaucracy that dominated the formal organs of government--in short, to the entrenchment of policies and methods of rule contrasting starkly with the revolutionaries' own early aims and traditional egalitarian, Socialist principles. In 1921, Lenin and the party leadership suppressed criticism within the party against bureaucratization and party centralism, and ruthlessly crushed open revolt by the peasants, workers, and sailors, coupling these harsh measures in politics with a sweeping retreat on the economic and social front. The USSR's heroic revolutionary age was over, and from 1921 to 1928 the regime plunged into the more mundane task of running the country from day to day.
Stalin rose to power because he embodied, perhaps more than any of his old colleagues, this new spirit. His colleagues, most notably the brilliant, individualistic Trotsky, who had thrived during the days of storm and stress, were unfitted for the office politics, the patient calculation, and the compromise required to operate a growing bureaucratic regime. Stalin, though unimpressive physically and a man of restless, emotional, vain, cynical, and often vindictive temperament, had internalized so profoundly the role of administrator that he projected everywhere in public (in imitation of Lenin) a humble air, simple dress, personal asceticism, calmness, efficiency, and fatherliness--qualities that appealed to his colleagues, to the public, and, perhaps most important of all, to the new generation of party functionaries of humble origin flooding the party in the 1920's.
Stalin was also careful to back the most popular solutions to the many problems hotly debated in the 1920's, including Lenin's principles of one-party government and internal party unity, the restoration of normal diplomatic relations, and moderate policies for the development of Soviet industry and agriculture. His theory of "socialism in one country, which asserted the possibility of building a complete Communist system in one country, contradicted traditional Marxist internationalism. But it was reassuring to many people who longed for some stability after the years of upheaval. He always appeared as one who implemented the will of the majority. His colleagues did not fear the power of the party machine over which Stalin presided, but rather the attempt on anyone's part to assert the kind of personal authority Lenin had exercised. Stalin exploited this miscalculation superbly, playing carefully on the mutual rivalries and suspicions of his colleagues and helping them to oust one another, while quietly staffing local and central party organs with his own followers. Power was substantially his by 1928.
After a year of drift, and not unmindful of the party's desire for change, Stalin and his men at the end of 1928 struck out precipitately on a set of policies designed to turn backward Russia into a modern state. With his predilection for vigorous and ruthless action and on the basis of what is today recognized as an inaccurate appraisal of the Soviet economy, Stalin launched forced industrialization and collectivization. The momentous series of economic and social measures included the establishment of crude and unrealistic five-year national economic plans, the deportation and execution of hundreds of thousands of the better-off peasants (kulaks) and the forced entrance of the rest into state-controlled " collective farms, nationalization of all industry and commerce, the regulation and manipulation of all financial instruments for capital accumulation by the government regardless of the people's impoverishment, and the centralization of all social activity. Top leaders such as Nikolai Bukharin, Aleksei Rykov, and Mikhail Tomsky, who urged restraint and more realistic procedures, were swept out of office. Despite the death of millions from famine and goods shortages that these measures caused, Stalin pursued the program relentlessly, meeting resistance and criticism with mass deportations, executions, and show trials of alleged saboteurs.
The enormous tensions engendered by this extraordinary drive, coupled with a growing desire for normalization, produced considerable dissatisfaction that may have led to a secret movement within the party to replace Stalin with Sergei Kirov, a secretary of the central committee and party leader in Leningrad. The murder of Kirov, in December 1934, began a period of purging and terror that lasted until 1939 and was marked by the execution of virtually the entire political and military elite and the incarceration in forced labor camps of millions of Soviet citizens. In this way Stalin, with the help of the secret police, established his personal dictatorship over the party and the country.
The establishment of totalitarian political control was coupled with retrenchment in the social and economic realm, in which Stalin instituted better methods of industrial management, a system of incentives and differential wages and prices, the reestablishment of traditional procedures in the armed forces, more moderate general guidelines in the arts and sciences, and a revival of the family as the basic social unit. In the face of the growing threats from Nazi Germany and Japan, Stalin reverted increasingly to traditional forms of foreign policy, seeking diplomatic alliances with the European powers. Finally, in August 1939, he concluded a bilateral nonaggression treaty with Hitler.
The events of these years profoundly affected Stalin personally. Although habitually choleric and withdrawn, he had lived in the 1920's an outwardly normal life, surrounded not only by many relatives, who spoke their minds freely in the family circle, but also by good personal friends among the Soviet leadership. In the early 1930's, however, his life began to change, especially after the suicide, on Nov. 8, 1932, of his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, who left a letter indicting him both personally and politically. From the beginning of the purges in 1935 until his death in March 1953, he was extremely suspicious, ready to see others--even those with whom he had been united by many years of personal and political comradeship--not only as personal enemies but as enemies of the state. He was unable to resume his trust in anyone from whom he had once withdrawn it, and he was unshakably convinced that the system of political terror must be allowed to work even if it touched those around him. He spared neither his own relatives (the Svanidzes and Alliluyevs, most of whom came to a tragic end), nor former political comrades, nor even the families of his closest political associates. Polina Molotova, the wife of his foreign minister and closest colleague, was sentenced in 1948 to 10 years in prison.
A complex man, he centered his life wholly in his office, where he indulged the whole range of his feelings, including--when he wanted--a not inconsiderable charm. He also permitted public glorification of himself on a scale hardly matched in any country in the 20th century. But in his personal life he withdrew almost completely, living until his death either in his Kremlin apartment, which his daughter Svetlana shared in the 1930's, or in his new country house at Kuntsovo, constantly surrounded by NKVD officers and bodyguards who ran the household. He kept away, almost pathologically, from the public, and he was frequently the object of the intrigues of some of the more unscrupulous of the leaders, such as Lavrenti Beria, head of the secret police, who used this terrifying instrument for his own ends.
When the German armies attacked the USSR in June 1941, Stalin, after suffering a brief nervous collapse, personally took command of the Soviet armed forces. With the help of a small defense committee (war cabinet), he made all major military, political, and diplomatic decisions throughout the war. He pursued victory with increasing skill, determination, and courage, by staying on in the Kremlin when Hitler's armies stood at the gates of Moscow, ordering a fantastic shifting of industrial plants from European Russia to the east, arranging for lend-lease from the Western powers, selecting more and more first-rate military commanders, and developing increasingly effective military strategy, including the remarkable counteroffensives at Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk. He undergirded the strength and morale of his people by fostering their traditional religious and patriotic sentiments, and conducting adroitly the complicated diplomacy from the Teheran conference to Potsdam. Of course, victory could not have been achieved without the patriotism and fortitude of the Russian people, the quality and skill of the Soviet military professionals, the efforts of the USSR's allies, and the enormous political and military miscalculations of Hitler.
In 1945, at the end of the war, there was a general expectation that in the USSR, which had shown itself to be one of the world's truly great powers, the despotic system of rule and institutional rigidities would disappear or at the least be tempered. Instead, Stalin and his men restored almost completely the pre-war system, molded the occupied countries of eastern Europe in the Stalinist image and placed them under Moscow's control, and entirely isolated the whole bloc of Communist nations from the West. The Soviet leaders evidently were convinced that the USSR, which had only a large land army, a devastated economy, a decimated country, and unreliable populations in the newly acquired territories, was extremely vulnerable, especially given the towering industrial and military superiority of the United States. By 1950, however, the Soviet Union had recovered, and Stalin, in the last few years of his life, seems to have mediated between those in the leadership who urged significant domestic reform and greater flexibility in foreign affairs and those who feared a departure from the rigid traditional domestic and foreign policies. Once more, in 1952, Stalin began preparing a purge of the old leadership, perhaps to restore his own initiative in making policy. He appears to have met with stout resistance, and before the purge got under way, he died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage, on March 5, 1953, in Moscow.
Within a few weeks, the Soviet leaders began a campaign to whittle down Stalin's reputation, which culminated in a devastating attack by Nikita Khrushchev at the 20th party congress in February 1956. By that time virtually every country in the Communist bloc was in turmoil, and rebellions broke out in Poland and Hungary, largely because of the uncertainty whether destalinization meant the abrogation of key aspects of the Stalin regime or merely reforms designed to dress the familiar features of Stalinism in more attractive garb. It now seems clear that his heirs meant to leave intact many of the basic elements of the system. Stalin's method of personal rule was replaced by group rule and more orderly processes of government, the terror apparatus was largely dismantled, the economy was notably modernized, and foreign policy was conducted with much greater diplomatic initiative and flexibility. But the Soviet leadership continued to cling tenaciously to the authoritarian system of party supremacy that shapes every aspect of life in the Soviet Union and to Soviet dominance over the Communist countries on its western borders.
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