Who Was Joseph Stalin & Why Do We Still Talk About Him?

How did Joseph Stalin, a.k.a. "man of steel", become one of the most influential and infamous figures in modern history? Read on to find out more.

Nov 21, 2021By Robin Gillham, BA History, MA Russian & Post-Soviet Politics

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From Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great, Russian history has been shaped by powerful leaders. However, no leader has left such a lasting mark as Joseph Stalin. He was so influential that his system of government was given a special term; “Stalinism”. So, who was this terrifying and formidable man that ruled the Soviet Union, and why do we still talk about him today?


Joseph Stalin: Son of a Cobbler

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Stalin in 1902, via the Wikimedia Commons


Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili on 21 December 1879, in the Georgian provinces. His father was a poor cobbler and, according to historians, would drink heavily and beat the young Stalin. Stalin’s mother was a housekeeper and worked hard to keep her family out of poverty. After his business failed, Stalin’s father moved to the Georgian capital of Tiflis in search of employment. Stalin and his mother were forced to move out of their house and into the home of an orthodox priest. Although he rarely spoke of his father, Joseph Stalin would maintain a strong connection with his mother throughout his life.


Poet and Young Bolshevik 

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Stalin in 1917, via the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia


After a few years living at the priest’s home, Joseph Stalin’s mother persuaded him to attend their village’s church school, where he excelled academically. Reading and writing poetry were some of his favorite activities. He also started to read history books and the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which influenced the young Stalin’s worldviews.


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Stalin graduated in 1894 at the top of his class and was awarded a scholarship at a church seminary in Tiflis. He only spent one semester there as he was expelled for reading the works of Karl Marx and converting others to the ideals of communism.


The Revolutionary Bank Robber and the “Black Work”

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Stalin’s Mug Shot, 1911, via the rarehistoricalphotos.com


Stalin’s reading of Karl Marx and other Communist theorists led him to join the Bolsheviks, a revolutionary political movement in Russia led by Vladimir Lenin. During the early 1900s, Joseph Stalin became a part of the Bolshevik underground and organized protests, strikes, and other acts of rebellion against the Tsar in the Georgian capital.


He soon became a reliable, strong man for the Bolshevik party, known for his illegal activities or “black work” that helped fund the party and its cause. Among these illegal activities were kidnappings, bank robberies, theft, and bribery. During this time, Stalin met Lenin at a Bolshevik party conference and they became close allies.


Man of Steel

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Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Grigoriy Ordzhonikidze, Tiflis (now Tbilisi), 1925, via Wikimedia Commons


Stalin’s revolutionary activities raised the attention of the Tsarist police forces, who imprisoned the young Bolshevik multiple times. However, he could always escape exile in Siberia by dressing as a woman or bribing the guards. Around this time, Joseph Stalin completely committed himself to the revolutionary cause. He shed his past Georgian identity and adopted the revolutionary name ‘Stalin’ which means “man of steel” in Russian.


The Gray Blur

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Vladimir Lenin in Smolny, Isaak Izrailevich Brodsky, 1930, via Tretyakov Gallery


In November 1917, the Bolshevik party finally achieved its goal. After nearly a year of strikes and the devastating effects of WWI on the population, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, overthrew the Tsarist powers and asserted control over Russia. They installed a system of workers councils or “Soviets” and the Soviet Union was born.


Stalin played a crucial but less prominent role in the revolution as editor of the Bolshevik daily newspaper Pravda. Shortly after the revolution, Lenin made Stalin General Secretary of the Communist Party. During these early years, Stalin worked in the background of party meetings, forming alliances and gathering intelligence that would benefit his cause to lead the Bolshevik party one day. He was so omnipresent and, yet, unmemorable during the revolution that one Bolshevik functionary described him as a “grey blur.”


Lenin Dies, Stalin Rises

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At the coffin of the Leader [at the coffin of Ilyich], by Isaak Brodsku, 1925, via State Historical Museum


In 1924 Lenin died from a stroke. What followed was a colossal period of mourning for the Soviet people who saw Lenin as a living legend. For Stalin, this was no time to mourn. Immediately after the funeral, he began maneuvering himself as Lenin’s heir and the rightful leader of the Soviet Union.


Many in the Bolshevik party assumed that Leon Trotsky, the Red Army leader and Civil War hero, would step forward. However, his ideas about a global revolution were too revolutionary for the Communist Party. Stalin, however, promoted that a socialist society could be established in the Soviet Union independent of the international context. Stalin’s ideas were popular enough within the party that by the late 1920s, he became the de-facto dictator of the Soviet Union by making his position of General Secretary the most powerful in the country. Soon after his rise to power, he had his closest rival, Trotsky, expelled from the country. His rise to power was complete.


Industrialization, Collectivization and the Holodomor 

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Alexei Stakhanov and fellow USSR miner from a Soviet propaganda film, 1943, via the United States Library of Congress


When Stalin became leader, Soviet agriculture was still controlled by small landowners and held back by old-fashioned farming techniques. To industrialize the backward Soviet Union, Stalin abandoned Lenin’s economic policies. Instead, he promoted state-directed five-year plans that set huge quotas on grain and iron production. The effect of these plans was devastating.


Factories were built overnight and railway tracks laid almost as fast as the trains that rode them. In Moscow, high-rise apartments were built where churches once stood. Modernist architecture was abandoned in favor of gothic-inspired architecture and the first skyscrapers in Russian history were built in the capital. The main building of Moscow State University, one of the “Seven Sisters“, remained the tallest building in Europe until 1997. Under Stalin even art changed as the movement known as Socialist Realism was imposed as the only acceptable form of art for a socialist society.


The consequences of industrialization were felt most by those working in the fields. Twenty-five million farmers were forced to collectivize into state farms over a few years. Those who refused collectivization were arrested, shot, or exiled to the network of concentration camps called Gulags and worked to death. Collectivization caused the worst famine in Ukraine’s history, which came to be known as the Holodomor. Approximately 10 million people are thought to have died due to Stalin’s policies during these years.


Stalin Purges the Soviet Union

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Memorial to Stalin’s victims at Kommunarka firing range, 2021, via New Moscow Times


Violence and terror were not new concepts for the Soviet Union. The Royal Family of Russia was executed during the Civil War between the Bolshevik and loyalist forces. Thousands of Russian land owners and elites were shot or exiled by Lenin. However, the amount of blood shed under Joseph Stalin’s orders during his “purges” was incomparable. Historians believe that approximately one million Soviet upper-class and regular citizens were executed.


The violence began in late 1934, when the worst consequences of industrialization were coming to an end. Stalin launched a new campaign of terror against the Bolshevik elite, counter-revolutionaries, or anyone who had spoken out against him. The catalyst for the “great purge” was the assassination of his close friend and potential rival, Sergey Kirov, by Leonid Nikolaev. The initial motive for the murder appeared to be a personal grudge. Still, the killing was soon used as a pretense to draw a vast counter-revolutionary conspiracy and for a mass purge of the country to begin.


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Stalin approving a USSR model of the pavilion for the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937, Alexsandr Bubnov, 1940, via Art Russe


During the purge, a total of 93 out of the 139 Central Committee members were executed and 81 of the 103 red army generals and admirals that had helped win the civil war were shot. The Soviet secret police enforced Stalin’s orders and encouraged neighbors and family members to inform on one another. The secret police handed out quotas to the regional heads of the Soviet Union that demanded a certain number of people killed and an even higher number sent to the Gulag. These quotas were always met and sometimes exceeded.


Nonaggression Pact with Hitler’s Germany and World War II

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Stalin and Ribbentrop in the Kremlin, 1939, via Bild


In the late 1930s, Germany under Hitler began to regain its influence on the world and drastically re-arm itself after the defeat of WWI. Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union tried to ally itself with the rising power. On August 23, 1939, Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler’s Germany. The agreement contained a secret clause in which the two powers agreed to divide Poland and Eastern Europe between them.


Nazi Germany invaded Poland nine days later and defeated France and Britain in a European-wide “Blitzkrieg”. Stalin ignored warnings from his generals that Germany would not stop at Poland and was completely unprepared for the “operation Barbarossa“, the German invasion against the Soviet Union in June 1941.


With the future of the Soviet Union hanging in the balance, Stalin faced his greatest challenge as a leader. German forces swept across the country, and by December 1941, they were at the border of Moscow. Stalin refused to leave the city and decided that victory must be won at any cost. He then told the red army, “not a step backwards,” and sent orders to his officers that any deserting soldiers should be shot.


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Centre of Stalingrad after liberation, 1943, via RIA Novosti Archive


This policy came to a head in Stalin’s namesake city, Stalingrad, where every house, hill, bridge, sewer, and street had to be fought over bitterly. The siege of Stalingrad lasted through the harsh winter, which found the German troops underprepared. This eventually led to the failure of the German offensive and was a major turning point in the war.


In 1943, after sacrificing millions of lives, the Red Army finally managed to defeat the Nazis, who were unable to hold back the vast manpower and resources of the Soviet Union.


The Division of Europe

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Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman, Josef Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, 1945, via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration


Despite heavy losses, Stalin played a decisive role in Germany’s defeat. After the war, vast areas of Eastern Europe were left occupied by Soviet forces, including East Berlin. The division of Berlin and Europe was later signed into reality at the Potsdam conference attended by the three great powers.


Stalin remained adamant that the nations of Eastern Europe should remain satellite states of the Soviet Union to form a protective sphere of influence between Moscow and Berlin. His former allies, the United States and Britain, almost overnight became his rivals, and Churchill declared that an iron curtain had divided Europe. In a struggle for control of the German capital, Stalin blocked entry to Allied-occupied West Berlin. The U.S. responded with an 11-month long airlift of supplies to people trapped in that part of the city. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. With the detonation of this weapon, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union began.


The Death of Stalin 

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Funeral of Joseph Stalin, caught on camera by U.S. assistant army attaché Major Martin Manhoff from the embassy balcony, 1953, via Manhoff Archive


On March 5, 1953, Joseph Stalin died of a stroke. His long reign finally ended. Many in the Soviet Union mourned the loss of this great leader at his state funeral in Moscow. At the funeral, thousands of mourners were crushed to death in the frenzy to pay respects to Stalin’s body. However, the millions of prisoners locked up in the gulags cheered the demise of one of the most murderous dictators in history. Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor and willing participant in the purges, soon denounced the actions of his predecessor and began the long process of “destalinization.”


Joseph Stalin’s Legacy

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Head of the Demolished Stalin Statue, 1956, via Google Arts & Culture


When Stalin came to power in 1928, Russia was still decades behind the world’s industrial nations. By 1937, after less than a decade, he had increased the Soviet Union’s total industrial output to the point where it was only surpassed by that of the United States. During WWII, the Soviet Union was able to play a vital role in defeating Hitler, under Stalin’s leadership and against enormous odds while maintaining its position as the world’s second industrial and military nation, after the United States. In 1949, less than 30 years after Stalin’s rise to power, the Soviet Union signaled its permanent arrival onto the world stage by detonating an atomic bomb. Such drastic development in such a short space of time has rarely been achieved in world history before or since.


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Students March in Berlin on Stalin’s Birthday, 1951, via Sonntagszeitung


However, although a high industrial output was indeed achieved under Stalin, very little of it ever became available to the ordinary Soviet citizen in the form of consumer goods or an increased standard of living. The state used a considerable proportion of the national wealth to cover military expenditure, the secret police, and further industrialization.


In addition, Stalin’s policies caused a historic famine in Ukraine and directly led to the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens accused of participating in anti-Soviet conspiracies. Joseph Stalin’s legacy may be one of industrial change, but perhaps the most significant reason we still remember him is the terrifying and horrific system of state terror he orchestrated, making his name still strike fear into the hearts of many.

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By Robin GillhamBA History, MA Russian & Post-Soviet Politics Robin is a keen collector of Soviet artifacts and documents that he has found during his travels across the former Soviet Union especially. He has written two dissertations on the social impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and traveled to the abandoned nuclear town of Pripyat. He also has a passion for Ancient History and the origins of modern consciousness among early civilizations. He holds a BA in History from Bangor University and an MA in Russian and Post-Soviet politics from UCL. In his spare time, he explores abandoned military facilities.