One of the towering figures of the 20th century, things might have been very different for global politics had Stalin not been around. During his time as Soviet leader, he oversaw the Allied victory against Nazi Germany and the worsening of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Stalin is also considered one of the most dangerous totalitarian leaders in history, his violent excesses often compared to those of Adolf Hitler. Here are 10 facts about Joseph Stalin.
1. Smallpox as a child left him with lasting scars and a deformity
Born into poverty in 1879 to an alcoholic cobbler father and washerwoman mother, Stalin caught smallpox at the age of seven and was left with pockmarks on his face and a slightly deformed left arm. He was bullied by other children while also enduring beatings at the hands of his father.
2. His mother sent him to study to become a priest
In December 1895, Stalin’s mother sent him to a seminary in the Georgian capital of Tiflis (modern-day Tbilisi). He rebelled against studying scripture, however, instead reading the writings of Karl Marx and joining a local socialist group. Eventually he became an atheist, and in 1899 was expelled from the seminary for failing to attend exams.
3. His nom de guerre means “man of the steel hand”
Stalin was born Ioseb (Joseph) Besarionis dze Jughashvili. But, like other Russian revolutionaries, including Vladimir Lenin, he later adopted the alias by which he is now best known.
4. At one point he lived in the Kremlin with Lenin and Leon Trotsky
Following the October Revolution of 1917, the three men became part of an informal group leading the new Bolshevik government. This group was completed by Yakov Sverdlov, though he died little more than a year later. When the government moved from Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg) to Moscow in March 1918 due to the ongoing world war, it based itself in the Kremlin. And it was there that all four men lived.
5. He became the de facto dictator of the Soviet Union…
When Lenin died in 1924, he was succeeded by Alexei Rykov as chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, and thus the head of the government. Stalin, meanwhile, remained general secretary of the Communist Party. But he immediately set about promoting himself as Lenin’s true political successor.
By the late 1920s he had established himself as the supreme leader of the party, though there is some debate over when the Soviet system of governance evolved from an oligarchy to a dictatorship under Stalin.
6. …exiling Trotsky in the process
After Lenin’s death a bitter power struggle broke out between Stalin and and the more idealistic Trotsky. Both sides had their supporters – Lenin himself had said before he died that Trotsky should replace Stalin as general secretary of the Communist Party. But in the end Stalin won out, exiling Trotsky to Kazakhstan in 1928 before deporting him from the Soviet Union altogether the following year.
Eleven years later, Stalin dealt Trotsky the ultimate blow and had him assassinated in Mexico City.
7. He developed his own brand of Marxism
Like Lenin before him, Stalin also had his own interpretation of Marxism. In Stalin’s case this interpretation was very nationalistic and focused on building up the Soviet Union rather than on global revolution.
8. He oversaw the country’s industrialisation
Fearing that communism would fail if the Soviet Union did not modernise, from the late 1920s Stalin began initiating a series of brutal five-year plans to industrialise the still almost feudal country. Under his leadership, the production of coal, oil and steel grew exponentially and the country saw huge economic growth. But these gains came at a huge human cost.
People were forced into leaving their homes to work in factories where they laboured in terrible conditions – and those who refused were killed. At least 5 million people are believed to have died during this industrialisation process.
9. He ordered the 1940 Katyn Massacre
One of the most ruthless political leaders in history, the deaths attributed to Stalin number in their millions. Among the dead are the estimated 22,000 Polish prisoners of war who were executed by the Soviet secret police in April and May 1940. The Soviet Union initially blamed the Nazis for the killings and it wasn’t until 1990 that it admitted responsibility.
10. His eldest child died in a Nazi concentration camp
Stalin’s son from his first marriage, Yakov, was a soldier in the Red Army during World War Two and was either captured or surrendered in the initial stages of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The Nazis proposed to free him in a prisoner swap but Stalin refused, possibly because he believed that Yakov had surrendered voluntarily. He died in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1943.