Uncle Joe

Ralph Zuljan

Joseph Stalin was born December 21, 1879, in Gori, a small town in the Russian vassal state of Georgia. His birth name was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashivili, son of a hard-drinking cobbler and a religious, protective mother. Dzhuasghivili deserted his family when Iosif was quite young, leaving his wife to support herself, her only surviving child and to provide for his education. She took a number of menial jobs, eventually landing the position of (probably) live-in housekeeper to the parish priest. This was a beneficial arrangement, for Iosif was a pious boy, whose mother intended to become a priest. Iosif attended the Gori church school, the only school available to peasant children, from 1888 to 1894 where he was an excellent student, earning a scholarship. He then attended the Tiflis Theological Seminary, from which he was expelled for subversive activities in 1899. It was during his school days that Stalin learned to speak Russian, studied Marxism and developed a taste for revolution.

In 1900 Stalin joined the revolutionary underground while working as a clerk at the Tiflis Observatory. Even at this early stage he displayed a complete disregard for his fellows and antagonized many of them by his zeal for violent action. By March, 1901 he had attracted the attention of the police, who searched his lodgings. He was not arrested at this time but became a full-time revolutionary after that and went underground, with the Party name of "Koba"-- the name of a Georgian folk-hero rather like Robin Hood.

"Koba" spent much of the time between 1902 and 1916 being exiled to, and escaping from, Siberia, fomenting revolution all the while. During this time he served as political advisor to Lenin's newspaper Pravda and published articles under the name "K. Stalin". "Stalin" is derived from the Russian word for steel.

In 1905 Stalin also found time to marry Ekaterina Svanidze. She died in 1907, shortly after the birth of their son Yakov. Stalin had no hand in raising the boy, and apparently despised him. (During World War II, Yakov was captured by the Germans and Stalin refused an offer to have the boy returned.)

Stalin remarried in 1918. His wife, Nadezhda Alilleuva, was a devoted Party member who avidly pursued education and tried to persuade her husband to moderate some of his more extreme policies. They had two children, Vasili, born in 1921 and who eventually died of chronic alcoholism and Svetlana, born in 1926. Svetlana recalled her father as being an affectionate parent. She later emigrated to America and much of what we know of her father's personal life comes from her published memoirs. Nadezhda, however, was moody and depressive, she committed suicide in 1932. There were rumors that Stalin had murdered her, but these were unsubstantiated and have since been discredited.

There is no question, however, that Stalin was a murderous individual. He had no compunction about killing to achieve his ends and his name is forever linked with purges, pogroms, terror and death.

Stalin's rapid rise to power in the Bolshevik Party was partly due to his own political acumen, which was considerable, and partly due to judicious use of discreditation and sometimes even assassination. Terror and murder also proved to be very effective tools in consolidating and maintaining power throughout his career. No one was immune, even Leon Trotsky -- a one-time competitor for party leadership -- eventually fell to Stalin's assassins, in Mexico City, 1940.

Pre-Revolutionary Russia had been a desperately poor nation whose economy had been largely based on subsistence-level agriculture. Stalin believed, quite correctly, that more efficient agriculture and industrialization were needed. However, it was accomplished in a typically brutal fashion. Farms were forcibly collectivized, leading to riots, killings, mass deportations to labor camps and famine. It is estimated that over ten million peasants died during this process. Industrialization followed much the same path, at a similar cost.

The show trials began in 1936. Party members were accused and forced to give false confessions of guilt for trumped-up charges. The lucky ones were disgraced, the rest were executed. These trials and purges affected all levels of society and every profession culminating in the purge of top military leaders starting in 1937. By the time the Nazi threat became an issue, most of the revolutionary intelligentsia, political and military leaders had been removed.

Stalin, as might be expected, played a major role in the Second World War. One of his earliest actions was an attempt to divert the threat of a German invasion by signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939. It was the first in a series of efforts, on Stalin's part, to avoid entanglement in a war with the Third Reich, something which he believed could only benefit the capitalist allies. These efforts to appease Hitler proved wholly inadequate, the Soviet Union was invaded in June, 1941. After his initial shock Stalin responded by appointing himself supreme commander-in-chief of the war effort and began to be very effective indeed. He displayed a marked talent as a leader able to hearten and inspire his people. Indeed, he has been compared favorably to Winston Churchill in this regard.

The "Big Three" leaders -- Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin -- met at a number of conferences and Stalin alternately charmed and repelled his colleagues. This was typical of Stalin, he could be immensely charming at one moment and intensely abrasive at the next. He had Roosevelt convinced that he was rational, reasonable and easily manipulated. Roosevelt was convinced that he could handle "Uncle Joe" -- a name given to Stalin by American wartime propaganda -- and gain whatever concessions he desired. Churchill, on the other hand, was not charmed by Stalin and never really trusted him. While they contrived to work together the alliance was not cordial and did not last past the end of the war.

Originally published in "World War II" at Suite101.com on November 1, 2000.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on July 1, 2003.

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