Stalin and Stalinism: A Biography of Josef Stalin

So You Think You Know Stalin?

I’ve been reading up on Josef Stalin lately. You know, just for kicks. Because when I want to relax, I read about brutal dictators and the horrible things they’ve done to the world.

Now, I consider myself to be an educated person, but it turned out that there was a lot I didn’t know about Stalin. I knew he wasn’t really Russian, and I knew Stalin wasn’t his real name. I knew he’d committed crimes against humanity. I did not know as much as I thought I did about and his role in the Russian Revolution, the formation of the Soviet Union, and the creation of the Eastern Bloc; and I did not know quite how brutal and calculating he could be.

If you’re trying to unwind after a long, hard day, what better way to do it than to learn about one of history’s most vicious and tenacious despots? Below are some of the surprising (and not-so-surprising) things I learned about Josef Stalin during my fine, relaxing evening on the internet. Take a gander yourself. Go on. Enjoy yourself. You’ve earned it.

Stalin Was Not His Real Name

Meet Ioseb Besarionis Jughashvili

The Georgian version of Josef Stalin’s birth name was Ioseb Besarionis Jughashvili in Georgian. The Russian version is Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. Records differ as to whether he was born in 1878 or 1879. His mother was Ketevan Geladze, a former serf. His father, Besarion, was a cobbler.

During his revolutionary activities, Stalin went by several¬†noms de guerre. The name “Stalin” derives from the Georgian and Russian words for “steel”, combined with a possessive suffix¬†“-in”.

He apparently fancied himself a man of steel.

Stalin Was Not Russian

He was born in Georgia (the country, not the state)

Josef Stalin was born in Gori, a town in the Tiflis Governate of the Russian Empire. Gori was a lawless place when Stalin lived there, with an entrenched criminal culture and an insufficient police force. Gang warfare and organized street brawls were a common occurrence.

Stalin grew up speaking Georgian, and only started to learn Russian when he was went to school. He nonetheless went on to become a Russian nationalist, taking a hard-line approach toward non-Russian Soviet republics – especially his native Georgia – as well as Russia’s neighbors.

Stalin Suffered Severe Childhood Illness and Injuries

When Stalin was seven years old, he survived a battle with smallpox, but remained badly scarred from the disease. He later had photographs of himself re-touched to remove the pockmarks (as well as former political allies who had fallen from his favor).

When he was nine, he was struck by a horse-drawn carriage, an accident which left his right arm permanently injured. When he was twelve, he was again struck by a carriage, this time needing several months in the hospital to recover.

These injuries would later help him to avoid conscription into the Russian military during World War I.

Stalin Was Abused By His Father

It explains a lot, but excuses nothing.

Stalins father was an alcoholic. As his drinking raged out of control, he lost his shoe-making business, and became incredibly violent toward his wife and son.

Stalin’s father wanted his son to become a cobbler like himself. Stalin’s mother wanted him to get an education. When she enrolled her son in school, her husband became furious, smashing all the windows in a local tavern and attacking the chief of police. Even by the lawless standards of Gori at that time, this was crossing the line. The police ordered him to leave town, and he moved to Tiflis (now called Tbilisi) where he found work in a shoe factory.

But the battle for Stalin’s education was not over. When Stalin was released from the hospital following his second carriage accident, his father forcibly enrolled him as an apprentice cobbler in the factory where he worked. His mother, along with her contacts in the clergy and the staff at Stalin’s school, was able to rescue him and re-enroll him in school. At this time, Stalin’s father severed all contact with his wife and son.

Stalin Had A Religious Education

In which he learned to be an atheist.

When Stalin was ten, he was enrolled at the Gori Theological School. The students, all Georgian, were required to speak Russian as per policy set by Tsar Alexander III. Stalin became fluent, but continued to have a thick Georgian accent for the rest of his life.

Stalin excelled in his studies, and enrolled in the Orthodox Theological Seminary at 16. He failed to graduate when the school abruptly raised its fees, and he was forced to drop out, missing his final exams. This put an end to his priestly education.

This was probably for the best, considering that he’d become an atheist by the end of his first year of seminary. I hear the church frowns on that.

Stalin Was A Bank Robber

No, really. It’s not a metaphor.

The Bolsheviks funded their activities through various criminal means, including bank robbery and extortion. Stalin was the leader of a gang that once ambushed an armored convoy, killing 40 people and getting away with the equivalent of $2.5 million USD in today’s money. He also raised money through hold-ups, protection rackets, and ransomed kidnappings of oil tycoons.

His thuggishness troubled many members of the Bolshevik leadership, but he had already solidified his power and influence, and nobody dared openly opposed him.

Stalin Was Blamed For Painful Losses In The Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921)

The Polish-Soviet War is a long and complicated story. To get to Stalin’s part in it, I’ll start toward the end.

Poland and Russia had been fighting for several months. At first Poland was advancing, but then the Red Army turned the tide. After a series of battles, Warsaw was in sight, and Russian victory seemed assured. Leon Trotsky, commander of the Red Army’s Western front, asked Stalin to divert some of his troops from the Southwestern front to assist in the Battle of Warsaw. Stalin refused. He preferred to focus on the city of Lviv, and besides, he hated Trotsky.

As a result, the battles of Lviv and Warsaw were both lost. Although neither Poland nor Russia achieved their aims, both of them claimed victory in the war. As for Stalin, he was blamed for the losses, and resigned his military commission.

Stalin and Lenin Were Not Best Buddies

After his failures in Poland, Stalin engineered the Red Army invasion of his home country of Georgia. He was absolutely brutal in bringing his compatriots into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, favoring a hard line approach that would consolidate power in the hands of Russian Bolsheviks. In a speech at a workers’ assembly in Tiblisi, in which he called for the elimination of local nationalism, he was booed.

He reacted by removing the leadership of the Revolutionary Committee and replacing them with hardliners like himself. In less than a year, however, Stalin was in open conflict with his hand-picked committee members. Stalin wanted Georgia to form a Transcaucasian republic, along with the other Soviet nations of the Caucuses, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Members of the Revolutionary Committee wanted to maintain their national identity within the Soviet republics, and accused Stalin of “Russian Chauvinism”.

Lenin believed that member states of the USSR should be treated with more deference than Stalin employed. He disapproved of Stalin’s handling of the matter, and began to grow concerned about his former protege’s consolidation of power. However, he suffered a stroke in 1922, which left him unable to communicate his support of Georgian Bolsheviks.

Stalin Was Married At Twice

He lost his first wife to typhus; his second to suicide

Stalin’s first marriage lasted a little over a year, from mid-1906 until late 1907. His wife, Ekaterina Svanidze, died of typhus at the age of 22. Stalin is reported to have said to a friend at her funeral, “with her died my last warm feelings for humanity”. Most of her surviving family fell victim to the Great Purges of the 1930s.

His marriage to his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, was loving but strained. The marriage lasted for 13 years, from 1919 until 1932, ending with her suicide by revolver after a public argument with her husband. The official cause of her death was given as appendicitis. Nadezhda’s extended family, like Ekaterina’s, were imprisoned or executed during the purges.


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