Stalin, a soubriquet meaning ‘Man of Steel’ is one of the most controversial characters ever. He aided Lenin and the Bolsheviks in overthrowing the Romanov dynasty of Tsars that had ruled Russia for 300 hundred years, establishing the Soviet Union (USSR), the world’s first communist state. After Lenin’s death a vicious struggle for power broke out, with Stalin emerging victorious and accumulating unassailable power. He would lead the USSR during WWII, and some of the most horrific episodes of the 21st century bear his signature, including famines, deportations, political persecution, and an unprecedented atmosphere of terror caused by his infamous purges. Discover the bone-chilling details here.

1# The origins of the Dictator

Stalin was born Ioseb Besarionis dzе Jughashvili, in Gori, Georgia, back then a province of the Russian Empire, on 6th December 1878 (Old Style Calendar. Styled O.S.). His parents were Besarion (Beso) and the pious Ekaterina (Keke), who nicknamed her son Soso and enlisted him in the Gori Church School, and later into a Seminary in Tiflis. There he would have a first taste of forbidden revolutionary and socialist ideas, and trade, once and for all, the Bible for Karl Marx’s works.

Young Stalin appearing somewhat arrogant
Young Soso as a seminarian. 15 years old. 1894. Source

2# The Young Stalin

Adopting the revolutionary nickname Koba, he joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP) to worship up-close his new prophet, Lenin, of whom he would learn by heart his number one command: the means justify the end. Specially if the end is the world’s revolution of workers, and the overthrow of oppressing capitalist land owners. Strikes, protests, extortions, coercions, outright assault and forceful expropriations, amongst other questionable methods to obtain funds for the party, became his revolutionary CV.

Stalin in his mid 20's. His clothes are dingy, but he would do well in a shampoo ad.
Young Stalin in 1902. He was often described by many of his comrades as attractive. Coupled with his life of romantic rebel, it never found him lacking women’s attention. Source: – RGASPI. F.558. OP.11. D.1647. DOC.2. LIST 5. via Stalin Digital Archive.

During this time he met Ekaterina Svanizde and married her in 1906. They would have a son, Yakov, but unfortunately she died a year later. Koba, who nevertheless spent little time at home, would skilfully avoid imprisonment by living under false identities. He would be often be arrested and awarded with the occasional Tsarist ‘vacation’ to Siberia, but Koba would always slip away to reunite with his beloved Lenin, who took his faithful bootlicker to party congresses in Paris, London and Berlin.

3# Revolution

In 1917 the February Revolution broke in Petrograd (modern day St Petersburg), forcing the Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. Koba, now signing some of his articles as Stalin in obvious homage to Lenin, was elected to the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, one of the two organs ruling Russia, next to the Provisional Government, which would be eventually headed by the charismatic Alexander Kerensky.

When Lenin returned to Russia from exile in April 1917, he elected his loyal lapdog to the Politburo of the Bolshevik Party (one of the scions that succeeded the old RSDWP). The Politburo was a small organ composed of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, Sokolnikov, and Bubnov, effectively taking all the important decision-making within the party. They organized a successful coup d’etat against the Provisional Government, known as October Revolution, which lead to the end of Russia’s involvement in the First World War, and plunge them into a bloody civil war. The Bolsheviks emerged victorious, eventually allowing them to unify the former provinces of the Russian Empire in a one single, communist country: the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) in 1922, with Lenin as its chairman.

Lenin reclined talks to a listening Stalin who smiles gently
Lenin and Stalin in 1922, in Gorki, where the first recovered from his increasingly serious health issues. Ownership: Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (former Central Party Archive). Source

4# How to become a dictator

Lenin died two years later, his body mummified and exposed to the people to worship like their new god. Quite ironic, taking into account the hostile stance of communist ideology against religion. Stalin used his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to fill the power vacuum, craftily shifting alliances to outmanoeuvre his main rivals, first Trotsky, then Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Bukharin, using the Politburo to strip them of their positions and membership, and culminating with Trotsky’s banishment in 1929.

Trotsky, picture taken in the mid 1930's, already in exile. He looks at the camera confident but his eyes betray sadness
Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). Born Lev Davidovich Bronstein. He became Stalin’s greatest adversary, but was ultimately banished and assassinated in Mexico by NKVD’s agent Ramón Mercader. Author: unknown. Source

Once comfortably in Lenin’s shoes, Stalin would start what his mentor couldn’t finish, the ultimate blow to the last vestiges of capitalism in the USSR. The NEP (New Economic Policy) set by Lenin to help an impoverished and famine-stricken Russia to recover before anything else could be done, was brushed aside for collectivization and rapid industrialization to begin apace.

5# Famine, wife, sons, and daughter

1930 was the turning point. All the land was to be possessed by the state. The Kulaks (small land owners) were stripped of their means and possessions, often violently, relocated and abused by resentful and poorer peasants. It is estimated that more than 240.000 Kulak families were deported by 1933, many succumbing to hunger and exposure. All remaining peasants were forcibly conscripted in collective farms. Coupled by the forced industrialisation and brutal confiscations of grain for the urban areas, it diminished the food produced and led to a severe famine in 1932-33, mainly centred in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The estimations are wide, but it is agreed that something around five to six million people lost their lives as a result.        

Two women walk past three peasants lying on the street, too weak to move. One of them might be dead
Starved peasants on the streets of Kharkiv, Soviet Ukraine, 1933. Source: Diocesan Archive of Vienna (Diözesanarchiv Wien)/BA Innitzer

6# The Political Purges

The worst was past, the harsh famine thawed and people looked forward to the future. But Stalin was a merciless man, very paranoid, and could never forget those who had opposed him. Was he capable of forgiveness? Yes. But only after destroying those who had wronged him. His old opponents Kamenev, Bukharin, and Zinoviev had been pardoned and reinstated in their posts. They still had a role in the great play of the puppet master Joseph Stalin. The only thing he needed was an excuse to draw his sword, the infamous NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs), directed by his faithful dog Yagoda, who undertook the repressive functions of secret police.

The NKVD badge, a sword and the sickle and hammer of the USSR, with flames around
NKVD badge. This secret police was the precursor of the Cold War KGB. Source

The murder of Kirov, Secretary of the Leningrad (St Petersburg) Committee of the Communist Party, on December 1st 1934, gave him the pretext he needed. In January Kamenev and Zinoviev were arrested, accused to plot the murder in collusion with the exiled Trotsky, Stalin’s favourite scapegoat for almost all the troubles in the USSR. Kamenev and Zinoviev’s families were threatened and both readily signed their confessions. Afterwards, were shot. Now Stalin could forgive them. But he wasn’t done with his round of pardons.

Stalin and Khrushchev smiling at the camera, they are surrounded by children and admirers.
Joseph Stalin in the mid 1930’s. The man next to him is Nikita Khrushchev, who would rule the country after Stalin’s death. Source

With the NKVD exempted of supervision from the Politburo, Stalin had a free hand in orchestrating the next steps. Tortures like sleep deprivation, suffocation, physical violence and beatings of relatives were condoned, and recommended to extract confessions of fabricated and colourful plots against Stalin and the USSR. Soon Bukharin followed Kamenev and Zinoviev, together with Alexander Beloborodov, former head of the Soviet Urals and organizer of the Tsar’s execution and that of his family.

The purge spread quickly across the ranks, with almost all the old Bolsheviks being accused, trialled in mock procedures, and shot. Stalin consented no threat to his power, real or not, and the original protagonists of the October Revolution were still too attached of the days when Trotsky was around. To create a new world, Stalin aimed to destroy those who remembered the old.

7# The Great Terror

The initial purges were only directed against the ranks of the party, that’s what the people assumed. Soon the Vozhd (leader, guide in Russian) proved them mistaken. The army was his next objective, too independent, too conceited, and too attached to Trotsky, who had held supreme military command during the civil war in the twenties. Mikhail Tukhachevsky and other Bolshevik heroes were accused of colluding with Hitler and shot. Overall were removed, shot, or imprisoned: 3 of 5 total marshals, 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars, amongst others.

Tukhachevsky in his uniform, holds a cap and gloves on his hands
Mikhail Tukhachevsky (1893-1937) Marshal of the Soviet Union. He was executed on trumped charges. He proposed to modernize the army and introduce deep operation tactics similar to the German Blitzkrieg. Source: Тодорский, А. И. Маршал Тухачевский : Политиздат, 1963. – 93 с., 2 л. ил. – (Герои и подвиги). – Б. ц.

Was it over? Not yet. It was the turn of everyone else to learn how dependant of the Vozhd they were.  It was 1937 and prisons were full. But for Stalin it was a simple issue to solve. Troikas were formed everywhere, composed of local NKVD and Party leaders, and authorised to shoot people without trial. Lucky ones were simply imprisoned or sent into exile to Gulags in far Siberia, to do forced labour. The Troikas worked hard to outdo each other, since those falling to meet the weekly quotas of ‘conspirators and traitors’ were suspected of being traitors themselves.

The general public was soon infected by the psychosis and reported neighbours, colleagues, and even relatives. Some out of fear to be reported themselves, others following personal vendettas or petty interests, coveting their well-off neighbour’s job position, wife, house or car.

Even the hangmen weren’t safe themselves. The brand-new NKVD Commissar, Lavrentiy Beria, would send his predecessors, Yagoda and Yezhov to join their victims, the same pattern being repeated in a local and regional level. Only one person was safe from this bizarre madness: its architect, Stalin the leader, the Red Tsar, now the new god.

Poster with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin faces, behind red banner, underneath pictures of people and crowds
It reads: raise the banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. The latter wanted to be percieved as equal to these champions, these heroes of communism. Author: Gustavs Klucis. Source


The total number of victims of the Great Terror it is placed between 950.000 and 1.2 million, including those who perished in the Gulags. Ethnic minorities of the USSR including Polish, Finnish, Greek, Romanian and others, together with Intelligentsia and Kulaks once more, joined those purged out of political and personal reasons.

The Terror was a vicious circle, and Stalin stood aloft, allowing the NKVD to carry with the excesses while he played the merciful card and granted pardons (up to 327,000 people after 1938), and publicly insisted on proper investigations and trials when his former Party comrades were indicted. But the truth is, Stalin organized the terror and personally signed some of the execution warrants for close associates and relatives, including the Svanizdes and Alliluyevs.

Document with the signatures of Stalin and other high-ranking party members like Molotov
A document containing a list of people to be trialled, executed, and some imprisoned, in 1937. Stalin’s signature is on top left quadrant. Source

9# The death of Stalin

Stalin would lead the country to victory during the Second World War (1939-1945) and live enough to see the outbreak of the Cold War. His arbitrary clean-ups, albeit in a much smaller, would continue to terrorise his fellow countrymen until he gave his last breath on 5th March 1953. Because even this communist god, with his unparalleled power, feared being casted away.

The former seminarian who caused unprecedented misery, worthy to rival that of his nemesis, Hitler, stands quite a controversial figure in Russia, much like the ambiguous heritage of the Soviet Period. He is accurately compared to Hitler due the dimension of his violations, but also invoked by his supporters as a powerful leader and the main architect of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. Even the devil has his own fan club.