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date: 21 November 2017

Stalin, Joseph

The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World

Robert V. Daniels

Stalin, Joseph. 

General secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1953 and effective dictator of the country after 1929, Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on 9 December 1879 (21 December, Western style) to a working-class family in the town of Gori in what is now the Republic of Georgia. Expelled from the Orthodox seminary where he was considered willful and rebellious, he joined the nascent Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party, siding with its radical, Bolshevik wing led by V.I. Lenin after the split of 1903. His conspiratorial activity in Transcaucasia (including bank robberies to finance the party) brought him to Lenin's attention, and in 1912 he was coopted to be a member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and an editor of the party newspaper Pravda.

Arrested in 1913, Stalin was released from detention in Siberia after the fall of Tsar Nicholas II in February (March, Western style) 1917, and resumed his place in the Bolshevik leadership. Following the Bolshevik seizure of power in October (November) 1917 he was made Commissar of Nationalities in the new Soviet government. During the Civil War of 1918–1920 he served as an army political commissar and as Commissar of the Workers' and Peasants' Inspection. He was chosen a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party when it was set up in 1919.

In 1922, at Lenin's suggestion, Stalin was elevated to the new post of general secretary of the party. In his “Testament” of January 1923, shortly before his death, Lenin adjudged Stalin “too rude,” but failed to remove him.

In the period 1923–1927 Stalin collaborated with the cautious faction of Communists led by Nikolai Bukharin who supported the semicapitalist New Economic Policy (NEP, 1921–1928), to fight Lev Trotsky and the “Left Opposition” with their more proworker line. Meanwhile he built a personal power base in the professional bureaucracy or “apparatus” of the party. After expelling the Left Opposition from the party in 1927, he ousted Bukharin and the “Right Opposition” from the leadership and launched the radical programs that linked his name with the basic principles of the Soviet system for the next half century.

The “Stalin Revolution” included forcible collectivization of the peasants; rapid expansion of heavy industry pursuant to the Five-Year Plans; and a vast increase in the labor camp system. Stalin repudiated social and artistic experimentation in favor of the propaganda of “socialist realism,” embraced Russian nationalism, and abandoned the Marxian doctrines of egalitarianism and the “withering away of the state.” He persecuted all religions until World War II, when he granted limited toleration to the Russian Orthodox Church in order to gain its patriotic support.

Sensing opposition within the Communist Party leadership, Stalin used the December 1934 assassination of his heir-apparent Sergei Kirov (probably not arranged by Stalin himself, as once thought) as the excuse to launch the Great Purge of 1936–1938. This included the “Moscow Trials” that condemned his rivals of the 1920s, and the secret execution or imprisonment of one to two million members of the Soviet bureaucracy, intelligentsia, and military leadership.

Stalin toned down the Communist doctrine of world proletarian revolution, beginning with his theory of “socialism in one country” (1924), while he tightened Soviet control over the parties of the Communist International and used them as agents of influence and espionage in the service of *Soviet foreign policy.

In the mid-1930s Stalin sought alliances with the Western democracies in the name of “collective security,” and ordered foreign Communist parties to support democratic governments through the “Popular Front.” Then, to buy time, he concluded the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of August 1939 that set the stage for World War II. In 1939–1940, under cover of the pact, Stalin advanced the Soviet Union's western borders and annexed the Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Thanks to Stalin's efforts to placate Adolf Hitler and his refusal to heed intelligence warnings, Soviet forces were taken by surprise when Germany invaded in June 1941, and suffered crushing initial defeats. Stalin at first panicked, but then assumed personal control over military operations. At war's end the Red Army had pushed back all the way to Berlin, occupying the entire band of East-Central and Southeastern European countries that had collaborated with the Nazis or had been occupied by them. Despite his promise at the Yalta Conference of January–February 1945 to respect democratic principles in this region, Stalin proceeded to install the local Communists in power, along with the Soviet model of government and economy, thereby helping to bring on the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western powers. Communists as well as non-Communists who resisted Soviet hegemony were purged, with the exception of Tito's Yugoslavia, which was expelled in 1948 from the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) linking the new Communist governments.

Stalin took the victory of 1945 as vindication of his command economy, and intensified his dictatorial control instead of relaxing it as his subjects had hoped. He continued to conduct purges, particularly against ethnic minorities, foreign influences, and Jewish cultural figures. Possible further purges were cut short by his death of a stroke on 5 March 1953.

Stalin's model of government and economy was copied in China, North Korea, North Vietnam, and Cuba. The term “Neo-Stalinism” is generally applied to the antireform government of Leonid Brezhnev that followed the overthrow of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, and to other Communist governments that followed the lead of the Brezhnev regime.

Stalin's place in history has been subject to widely differing interpretations. The official Communist line while he was still living was that he had continued the proletarian revolution and the building of socialism begun by Lenin, crushed the “enemies of the people,” and inspired every area of Soviet life and thought with his genius. This view was repudiated in part by Khrushchev in his de-Stalinization campaign of 1956–1961 emphasizing the terror of the purges, and further by Mikhail Gorbachev during the period of “perestroika” from 1985 to 1991, rejecting Stalinism as a “command-administrative system” that had merely created “barracks socialism.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most opinion in the formerly Communist countries has again identified Stalinism and Communism, though in a totally negative sense. A small minority of dogmatic Russian Communists continues to extol Stalin's role, particularly as a war leader.

Western evaluations of Stalin disagree as to whether he merely implemented the tyranny inherent in the Bolshevik Revolution and one-party dictatorship (the more conservative view) or whether he betrayed the Communist revolution by creating a bureaucratic dictatorship over the workers (the view of the non-Communist Left, notably of Trotskyists). Both of these schools of thought equate Stalinism with the totalitarian system of rule, while “revisionist” scholars play down the “totalitarian model” and seek the explanation for Stalinism in Russia's social backwardness.

A composite view of Stalin is that he built on Lenin's heritage in some respects and contradicted it in others, synthesizing the most severe features of both the revolution and the tsarist regime in a postrevolutionary dictatorship that combined revolutionary rhetoric and a militarized economy with old nationalist ambitions.

By most accounts, Stalin was a man of extraordinary evil. Adept at behind-the-scenes intrigue, he was implacably vindictive toward anyone who had ever disagreed with him or outshone him, save Lenin. Foreign leaders and diplomats who dealt with Stalin found him personally charming as well as shrewd, though he enjoyed humiliating his own loyal entourage. In retrospect, his paranoid tendencies are clear, but this is an occupational disease of dictators.

Stalin's attitude toward the ideology of Marxism-Leninism is still not widely understood. Most authorities assume either a doctrinaire belief that goaded him on, or a cynically propagandistic manipulation of doctrine. More likely Stalin combined an intense need for legitimation and personal acclaim with the ability to adopt any policy he chose, label it Marxism-Leninism, and destroy anyone who called this reasoning into question. He always cloaked his actions in Marxist-Leninist garb while tailoring the meaning of ideology to suit his policy decisions; the party's monopoly of public discourse made it seem to friend and foe alike that the ideology was still being followed undeviatingly.

(See also Communist Party States; Russian Revolution; Totalitarianism.)


Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography (New York and London, 1949).Find this resource:

Robert C. Tucker, Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879–1929 (New York, 1973).Find this resource:

Roy A. Medvedev, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (rev. ed., New York, 1989).Find this resource:

Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power (New York, 1990).Find this resource:

Robert Conquest, Stalin: Breaker of Nations (New York, 1991).Find this resource:

Dmitri Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy (New York, 1991).Find this resource:

Robert V. Daniels, ed., The Stalin Revolution: Foundations of the Totalitarian Era (4th ed., Boston, 1997).Find this resource:

Robert V. Daniels

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