Few Allied leaders were as controversial as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. A valued ally in the war against Germany, Stalin quickly became the enemy by making a grab for much of Eastern Europe once the war was over.
Stalin was born Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on December 21, 1879, in what would later become the Soviet Republic of Georgia. His father was a cobbler and his mother a house cleaner. In 1888, Stalin entered the Gori Church School. He was an excellent student and won a scholarship to the Tbilisi Theological Seminary. It was there that he was introduced to the political philosophies of Karl Marx, which caused him to rethink his dedication to the church. Because of his involvement with the underground revolutionary movement to overthrow the monarchy, Stalin was expelled from the seminary in 1899. Soon, he was arrested for distributing illegal literature (primarily Marxist propaganda) to rail workers and others, and was eventually exiled to Siberia. However, he managed to escape and returned to Georgia in 1904.
He took the name of Stalin (“man of steel”) and eventually joined the Bolsheviks, who were being led by Vladimir Lenin. He married in 1905 (his wife, Yekaterina, died two years later). Between 1908 and 1912, Stalin was arrested several times but managed to escape. In 1912, he traveled to St. Petersburg (later Petrograd and then Leningrad) and joined the staff of a small newspaper titled Pravda (Truth), later the official Communist newspaper of the USSR. It was then that Stalin was encouraged by Lenin to write his primary theoretical work, Marxism and the National Question. In 1913, Stalin was arrested again and sentenced to life in exile. This time, he was not able to regain his freedom until the revolution of 1917 that instituted Communist rule.
Communist Takeover of Russia
Free again, Stalin traveled back to Petrograd, where he became deeply involved in the workings of the Bolshevik government and became a member of the party's Central Committee bureau. In 1919, he was elected to the Politburo, the Communist Party's highest decision-making body. As a political commissar in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, he oversaw military activities against the counterrevolutionary White forces led by General Piotr Wrangel.
Stalin was elected general secretary of the Communist Party in 1922, which helped solidify the base of his political power. Aggressive by nature, he often clashed with Lenin, who came to regret his association with Stalin. Lenin eventually called for Stalin's removal from office, but Stalin was able to hold on to his position through slick political maneuvering. After Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin used political connections, strategic alliances, and good old-fashioned back-stabbing to establish and maintain his power. By 1929, he had become the supreme ruler of the USSR.
Stalin as Supreme Ruler
A brutal and vicious leader, Stalin carried out a number of purges throughout the 1930s to eliminate anyone who might oppose him. His purge of the Red Army just before the onset of World War II removed nearly a third of the officer corps, hampering the nation's ability to defend itself early in the conflict.
Stalin would continue his campaign of terror throughout his life, sending as many as 25 million of his own people to squalid prison camps in Siberia before his death in 1953. People could be exiled to prison for virtually anything, causing the entire nation to tremble in fear under his iron-fisted rule. During World War II, Stalin sentenced his soldiers to prison camps for the crime of being captured by the Germans.
Entering the War
Though ideologically opposed to Nazism, Stalin saw value in aligning with Hitler, and in August 1939 the two leaders signed a nonaggression pact that essentially gave the Soviet Union a piece of Poland. However, Hitler turned on his ally and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The move stunned Stalin, who seemed unable to make a decision for the first few weeks of the German campaign in the Soviet Union.
Stalin's unwillingness to prepare for a German invasion despite overwhelming evidence that it was coming and the poor condition of the Red Army meant quick victories for Hitler and placed the Soviet Union in a desperate defensive position.
Stalin guided the Soviet war effort from a bomb shelter deep below the Kremlin, directing his generals and rallying his people against the German invaders. Though Stalin was a vicious dictator who had ordered the deaths of millions, the Soviets looked to him to protect them from Hitler.
When the United States entered the war in December 1941, Stalin began pushing for a second front, arguing that a U.S.–British invasion of German-occupied Europe would help take some of the pressure off the Soviet Union. Stalin also demanded supplies from his Allied brethren, threatening to sue for a separate peace with Germany if help was not forthcoming.
When Stalin addressed his people on the radio in November, he offered fictitious statistics suggesting that the Red Army had the enemy on the run. In truth, it was the other way around: Soviet forces were taking a pounding. Stalin's lies were the result of concerns that the populace of the conquered territories would rise up against him.
Stalin met with Roosevelt and Churchill for the first time at the Tehran Conference in November 1943. By then, the Germans had pulled most of the way out of the Soviet Union and the Soviet offensive had begun. Sensing an Allied victory in Europe, Stalin plotted to gain control of as much territory as he could after the war. Months later, Stalin began his land grab by demanding concessions on Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe in exchange for a promise to declare war on Japan. Soviet participation in the war against Japan lasted all of five days; for his effort, Stalin was allowed to extend his influence into northern Korea, Manchuria, and the Kuril Islands.
The Start of the Cold War
With World War II over, Stalin immediately began his efforts to spread Communism around the world, resulting in icy relations with the Western powers. The Cold War was quick in coming, and it would last for decades.
Stalin's mental abilities began to deteriorate about 1950, and he was seen less and less around the Kremlin. His paranoia growing, Stalin ordered another purge in January 1953, this one aimed at Kremlin doctors who Stalin thought were plotting against high-level Soviet officials. Stalin died from complications of a stroke in March, just before his latest round of terror could begin. He was succeeded as general secretary of the Soviet Communist party by Nikita Khrushchev.