Vissarionovich Stalin, originally Dzhugashvili, was born on the 18th of
December 1879, into a poor Georgian family in the town of Goree, Georgia.
His father was a shoemaker and his mother earned a little money by doing
laundry and sewing. Joseph had a few older brothers, all of whom died before
the age of one. Little Joseph Stalin was often beaten.
His mother was a deeply religious woman, who had a dream that one day her son would become a priest, so when Stalin turned eight, she sent him to a religious school. While learning there, Joseph became disappointed in his teachers and once remarked honestly to one of his friends: “You know, they’re lying to us. God doesn’t exist.”
In September 1894, he continued his education in an orthodox seminary in Tiflis (modern Tbilisi). Its rules were very strict, almost like a monastery’s. Stalin said that the students were constantly watched and periodically searched. While they were away, their possessions were ransacked.
“It was in protest against the cruel regime and godless methods of the seminary that I became a revolutionary,” he said later. In 1899, Stalin was expelled from the seminary. Although he always remained an atheist, his religious education left a big mark on him. Often in his speeches he employed oral techniques used in the church, he also said that the church taught him to understand people.
After trying a few part-time jobs, he at last joined the socialist underground, to which he would devote the rest of his life. This is where he took the name Stalin; it was common for these illegal socialists to take different names against the chance of apprehension by the police. His other names were Koba, David, Nizharadze, Chizhikov, Melikiants, Ivanov and others. When in 1902 the Socialist-Democratic party divided into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, Stalin joined the former.
On the 5th of April 1902, Stalin was arrested for the first time. In all he would be arrested seven times, exiled six times and escaped from exile five times. In exiles and arrests he spent more than nine years. In 1907, he took part in a bank robbery in Tiflis. He stole 340 million rubles, which by modern standards would be several billions. The money was spent for the socialist party’s purposes. He never denied it but this episode is missing from the official biography (well obviously, you wouldn’t want people to know their ruler is something so low as a criminal). In 1916, he was conscripted by the army, but managed to talk his way out of it because his left hand was disabled. During the Bolshevik Revolution, he, like many of the Bolsheviks, spent his time on, or at least around, the front lines.
On the 3rd of April 1922, Stalin was elected to be the General Secretary of the Communist party. At that time the position was a joke. He was given it just to get him out of the way of all the serious dealings. This is where Stalin showed his utter genius. While the more important leaders of the Revolution like Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin were dividing power between themselves, Stalin bided his time and strengthened his post, by inserting his people into all the key positions. And then, before the others had even realized it, the position of the General Secretary was the most important one, and the only man suitable for it was Stalin, of course. When Stalin couldn’t get his own way, he threatened to resign and, every time, the members of the Politburo (the leading committee of the Bolsheviks party) had to give in to his requests, because they were more afraid of each other than Stalin.
Not that there were no people willing to get rid of Stalin as the General Secretary, which caused great repressions. During his stay in office, Stalin caused the deaths of several million people, his aim was to create society in which everyone was afraid of everyone else. Besides, socialist economy could not exist without slave labor. Among those he had arrested and killed were thousands of ‘old’ Bolsheviks, his party comrades, whom he was afraid of.
Of course the mass killings didn’t leave his mental health unscathed. He once said to Khrushev and Mikoyan: “I am a goner. I don’t trust anyone, I don’t trust myself.”’
Hitler’s invasion of Russia was the greatest shock Stalin ever had in his life. Depressed, Stalin retired to his country house and was afraid to tell the Russian people about the beginning of the war. Molotov had to announce it in his stead. When Mikoyan and Molotov came to call Stalin back to duty, he was convinced they had come to arrest him. Molotov managed to convince him to return.
On the 30th of June 1941, Stalin received absolute power as President of the Defense Committee. On the 6th of March 1943, after Russia’s first big victories, Stalin got the title of Marshal. After the Victory, in May 1945, the rank of Generalissimus of the Soviet Union was created and given to Stalin the next day.
Some time after the war Stalin began to make repressions again, this time trying to get rid of popular military leaders, especially, heroes of the war.
Stalin died in 1953. On the 1st of March he had a heart attack. He hadn’t been sick and before that day he had had no problems with his health. A year earlier he had quit smoking and was immensely proud of it. His bodyguards immediately called for his fellow communists but the latter said that ‘comrade Stalin is just asleep’. Stalin never came to consciousness and died three days later.
See: Pavel Filonov. Portrait of Joseph Stalin.
Stalin : A Biography, by Robert Service. Belknap Press, 2005.
The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia by Richard Overy. W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.
Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives by Edvard Radzinsky. Anchor, 1997.
Stalin and His Hangmen : The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him by Donald Rayfield. Random House, 2004.
Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War? by Viktor Suvorov. Viking Pr, 1990.