The man known to history as Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on December 21, 1879 in Gori, Georgia, which was then part of the Russian Empire. His mother, Ekaterina Geladze, was of humble extraction, having been born into a serf family. His father, Vissarion Jughashvili, was a onetime serf who, when freed, became a self-employed cobbler but eventually went bankrupt and thereafter took a job in a shoe factory. An alcoholic who spent very little time with his family, Jughashvili was a morose and violent man who frequently beat his wife and young son. According to one of Joseph Stalin's childhood friends, "Those undeserved and fearful beatings made the boy as hard and heartless as his father." In 1888, when Stalin was nine, his father abandoned the family and went to live in the Georgian city of Tiflis, giving the family no further support.
The departure of Stalin's father may have given the boy some psychic relief. After his father left, Stalin excelled academically and in 1894 graduated first in his class from the elementary clerical school in the city of Gori. That same year he was awarded a scholarship to the Tiflis Theological Seminary, a Russian Orthodox institution. He attended seminary not because of any aspirations of becoming a priest (as his mother hoped he would do), but because it was one of the few educational opportunities available in Georgia.
In seminary, Stalin joined a Georgian Social-Democratic organization and there began his devotion to Marxism and the socialist movement - an affiliation that resulted in his expulsion from the seminary in 1899. Over the ensuing decade, he worked with the political underground in the Caucusus (the region between the Black and Caspian Seas, comprising Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and parts of Russia); between 1902 and 1917 he was arrested and exiled to Siberia on several occasions. A devotee of Vladimir Lenin's doctrine of a strong centralist party of professional revolutionaries, Stalin was appointed by Lenin (who was the head of the Soviet state) in 1912 to a seat on the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, a Marxist political entity that would rise to power in Russia's October Revolution five years later. That same year, Lenin also placed Stalin on the editorial board of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, and in 1913 the young man formally renounced his given name and took the surname "Stalin," which means "man of steel" in Russian.
In May 1917, Stalin was elected to the Politburo (the main policy-making and executive board) of the Central Committee (the highest body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, directing all Party and government activities), a position he would retain for the rest of his life. During the Russian Civil War (the 1918-1922 conflict in which the Communist Red Army defeated the anti-Communist White Army) and the Polish-Soviet War (1919-21), Stalin was an officer of the Red Army (so named in tribute to the blood shed by the working class in its struggle against capitalism). Between 1917 and 1923, Stalin also held posts as People's Commissar of Nationalities Affairs, People's Commissar of Workers and Peasants Inspection, Revolutionary Military Council member, and Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets member.
In April 1922 Stalin ascended to the position of General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party, a post that gave him control over all party appointments, promotions, and demotions. This enabled him to fill the ranks of the Party with his allies and thereby solidify an enormous power base. He appointed only loyal communists to leadership posts in local trade unions, cooperatives, and army units; all appointees reported directly to Stalin, who kept detailed files not only on them, but also on all party members and industrial managers.
In May 1922 Lenin was felled by the first of three debilitating strokes he would suffer before his death in January 1924. With Lenin ailing, Stalin began a bitter struggle for power against the most prominent and popular Bolshevik, Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army and Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic. Trotsky believed that Communism could not be achieved in an isolated and economically backward state like the USSR, and thought that only a European revolution in advanced industrial states could save the Soviet experiment. Stalin, by contrast, argued that socialism could be built in one country, and thus capitalized on the nationalist sentiment that would support such an idea.
After Lenin died in January 1924, Stalin joined forces with the Lev Kamenev (Lenin's deputy and president of the Moscow Soviet ) and Grigory Zinoviev (head of the Communist International, or Comintern) to take control of the Party. Ideologically the three were "centrists" opposing the Party's left wing led by Trotsky, and its right wing led by Bukharin. With the help of Bukharin, Stalin was able to secure a majority in the Politburo and the meetings of the Party Central Committee.
To win public support, Stalin initiated a propaganda campaign to portray himself as having been much closer to the now-deceased Lenin than he actually had been. Moreover, the Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev triumvirate prevented the publication of Lenin's 1922 testament in which he had expressed serious misgivings about Stalin's leadership abilities and greater confidence in Trotsky. This testament, which Lenin composed while struggling to recover from the effects of his first stroke, included the following sentiments:
"Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution. . . . Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite, and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc."
Stalin and his allies forced Trotsky to resign as Minister of War early in 1925. Thereafter Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev dissolved their political union, the latter two aligning themselves with Trotsky in 1926. When Zinoviev and Kamenev eventually began to realize the danger that Stalin represented, Stalin had them expelled from the Central Committee - on grounds that they were fomenting Party disunity, which would make the USSR vulnerable to attack by the West. Next he had Trotsky expelled from the Politburo, and in December 1927 exiled him to Alma-Ata in Soviet Central Asia. In 1929 Trotsky was banished from the Soviet Union altogether and in 1940 Stalin had him murdered.
Stalin had become (by 1929) the supreme leader of the USSR.
Economic Programs and the First Purges
As of 1922, Russia was the poorest nation in Europe. As many writers have shown, Marxist revolutions are driven more than anything else by hatred of the perceived "class enemy." Chief among those identified as "enemies of the people" by Stalin were landowning peasants or kulaks. Professionals such as managers and bourgeois engineers were also targets, and in 1928 the government fired thousands of them from their jobs; deprived them of ration cards; denied them the right to receive medical care; and drove many of them out of their homes.
The following year brought more of the same, as thousands of civil servants were purged on charges of "right-wing deviations," "sabotage," or "membership in a socially alien class." Acting on direct orders from Stalin, the State Political Directorate, a secret police known by the acronym GPU, fabricated false dossiers demonstrating the supposed existence of a "Peasant Workers' Party" that allegedly served as an umbrella for a network of anti-Soviet groups conspiring to overthrow Stalin and the Soviet regime. By 1930 the GPU had developed an elaborate system of concocting evidence to implicate as "terrorists" any opponents of Stalin's authority. The years 1928-1931 saw some 138,000 civil servants stripped of their jobs and civil rights - 23,000 of them on charges that they were "enemies of Soviet power." Tens of thousands of engineers, agronomists, technicians, and administrators met a similar fate.
Beginning in early 1930, the Stalin regime also initiated a campaign to rid the country of "all entrepreneurs" - mostly self-employed shopkeepers and craftsmen of only moderate means who operated small, one-person businesses. These were by no means wealthy people; 98 percent had no employees all. As "capitalists," however, they were regarded as "socially undesirable elements" and were punished, as were clerics, by a tax hike of one thousand percent as well as the confiscation of their business inventory.
Over time, these repressive measures cast their shadow over an ever-growing number of people. A December 1930 decree designated more than thirty different categories of citizens to be deprived of their civil rights, housing rights, access to health care, and ration cards. Among these were "ex-landowners," "ex-shopkeepers," "ex-nobles," ex-policemen," "ex-tsarist civil servants," "ex-kulaks," "ex-employees or owners of private companies," ex-White [Army] officers, "ex-members of political parties," and ex-clergy. These drastic measures against so many groups resulted in a nation overrun with homeless, unemployed vagabonds.
The aforementioned groups were the chief scapegoats who Stalin blamed for the fiscal misery of the nation. To address the problems of hunger and poverty, in 1928 Stalin initiated the first of five "Five-Year Plans" that he would implement during his long reign as the leader of the USSR (the others would cover the periods 1933-37; 1938-42; 1946-50; and 1951-55). This first Plan nationalized all aspects of Russian industry and commerce, with the goal of quickly industrializing the economy and collectivizing agriculture. Collectivization meant the confiscation of all private land and the organization of agricultural production by state-run "collective farms." The idea that drove this program was Marx's fantasy of social equality and social justice. In practice it meant that 25 million peasant farmers would not be paid any wages for their labor, but would instead produce their agricultural output entirely for the state, which would in turn allow them to keep a modest share for their own survival needs. Stalin's vision entailed the systematic replacement of small, unmechanized farms with large, mechanized alternatives that would theoretically produce food much more efficiently. In practice this meant that a nation which had once been Europe's breadbasket would experience famine and chronic agricultural scarcity for the next sixty years, until the system collapsed.
To make the mechanized farms possible, Stalin's Five-Year Plan ordered increases of 111 percent in coal production, 200 percent in iron production, and 335 percent in electric power. Stalin justified his demands by claiming that they were necessary to ensure Russia's very survival against an inevitable invasion by Western capitalist countries. Because the mandated production hikes were so enormous, however, they were rarely achieved. Further complicating matters was the fact that the great pressure for increased productivity resulted in a steep increase in work-related accidents, shoddy work, and physical and technological breakdowns.
Just as he demanded greater productivity from the aforementioned industries, Stalin also required the collectivized farms of the USSR to meet ever-increasing production quotas. He placed strict limits on the consumption of Soviet citizens so as to ensure that capital would be reinvested into industry. In Stalin's mind, the crucial mission of industrializing the Soviet Union justified any and every means, no matter how many lives were squandered or extinguished in the process. As he once explained, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Always attributing his brutalities to an unseen enemy, in 1931 an impatient Stalin said, "We are 50 to 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must cover this distance in 10 years. Either we do this or they will crush us."
As the collectivization progressed, agricultural production declined. This was due not only to the factors discussed two paragraphs above, but also to the fact that there was widespread public resistance to collectivization. Many farmers hid part of their harvest for the consumption of their own families. Millions preferred to slaughter their animals for food rather than give them over to Stalin's collective farms. This trend led to a precipitous decline in the number of livestock in the Soviet Union. In Kazakhstan, for instance, the cattle population dwindled from 7 million to 1.6 million, while the number of sheep declined from 22 million to just 1.7 million. In the Soviet dependency of Mongolia, Stalin's collectivization policies led to the loss of 8 million head of livestock. This mass slaughter of the nation's farm animals contributed to a profound economic crisis throughout the USSR. Moreover, many peasant farmers voiced their anti-collectivization sentiments in the form of violent demonstrations. In 1930 alone, some 14,000 peasant riots broke out in various regions of the country.
The peasant farmers were utterly demoralized by Stalin's decree for collectivization. By 1932, more than 12 million of them had flooded Russian cities, hoping to flee the oppressive realities of collectivization and "dekulakization." Their influx into the cities threatened to destabilize the rationing system that Stalin instituted in 1929. The number of people holding ration cards grew from 26 million in 1929 to nearly 40 million in 1932.
As a Marxist, Stalin would not consider, even for a moment, that the socialization of agriculture was itself responsible for the decreased productivity of Russian farms and factories. Instead he identified the class enemy as the culprit, and increased the purges of those accused of trying to "sabotage" his socialist plans. In particular, he condemned the kulaks and "kulak helpers," mass numbers of whom he ordered his henchmen to execute, sentence to slave labor camps in Siberia, or otherwise deport to remote regions of the country. It was the camps that Stalin created for this purpose - the infamous Gulag archipelago (which is discussed later in this essay) - that inspired Hitler to create concentration camps for the Jews.
Wherever Stalin looked, he believed that he saw adversaries plotting against him. In 1930-1931, for instance, he had nearly half of all engineers in the Donbass region either dismissed or arrested, and his agents claimed to have "unmasked" 4,500 "specialist saboteurs" in the transport sector alone between January and June of 1931.
To intimidate any additional would-be "saboteurs," of whose existence Stalin was becoming increasingly paranoid, a number of show trials were held in late 1930 through early 1931, where defendants "confessed" (often on pain of actual or threatened torture) to having worked for foreign embassies to establish a vast network of specialists dedicated to the common goal of crippling the socialist economy. These trials helped lend an air of legitimacy to the myth of sabotage, which, along with the myth of omnipresent conspiracy, became the hallmark of Stalin's worldview and the driving motivation behind his ever-increasing barbarity.
Collectivization had its most cataclysmic effects in Ukraine, where, in 1932-1933, Stalin turned famine into a tool of genocide. Identifying the Ukrainian peasantry as an enemy of the revolution, he sent the Red Army to Ukraine to confiscate the peasants' land and intentionally created a famine throughout the ethnic-Ukrainian region of northern Caucasus and the lower Volga River. This resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10 million people, or as many people as died on all sides in World War I. Stalin's purpose in engineering this calamity was to break the resistance of Ukrainian farmers and peasants to the confiscation of their property and force them to accept socialism. The method used was to drastically increase the grain procurement quota for Ukraine and stipulate that Ukrainian peasants could keep no grain at all for themselves until their quotas had been met. In regions where the land was more fertile, the state demanded an even larger share of the harvests. Unable to meet the huge quotas, peasants desperately tried to hide some of their grain in order to feed themselves and their families. But Communist Party officials, soldiers, and secret police units were mobilized to locate perpetrators of such deceit and take away all their stashed grain reserves. Thus Stalin's henchmen collected, stored, and guarded every ounce of Ukrainian grain while millions of Ukrainians starved to death around them.
Under the campaign "to bring socialism to the countryside," the more the people suffered, the more laws were created to limit their options for finding relief, thereby sealing their lamentable fates. In August 1932, for instance, the "ear law" went into effect - mandating execution or ten years in a labor camp as punishment for any "theft or damage of socialist property." Into this category fell a host of transgressions, including acts so minor as stealing a few ears of corn - hence the law's name. Between August 1932 and December 1933, some 125,000 people were sentenced under this law; approximately 5,400 of them were executed.
None of these draconian measures resulted in an adequate grain harvest. As of mid-October 1932, the chief grain-producing areas of the country had produced less than one-fifth of the target amount stipulated by the government. In characteristic fashion, Stalin blamed the "enemies of the people" rather than his own bankrupt socialist plan. In November of that year, the Party district secretaries for the Northern Caucasus region adopted a joint resolution that read: "Following the particularly shameful failure of the grain collection plan, all local Party organizations are to be obliged to break up the sabotage networks of kulaks and counterrevolutionaries, and to crush the resistance of the rural Communists and kolkhoz [collective farm] presidents who have taken the lead in this sabotage."
In those districts which the government targeted as nests of resistance, all trade was banned; all products were removed from store shelves; immediate repayment required on all government loans; taxes were raised to extraordinarily high levels; and there were mass arrests of "saboteurs," "foreign elements," and "counterrevolutionaries." Local Party administrations were purged, and workers and managers accused of "minimizing production" were arrested en masse. The prisons were, in the words of one eyewitness, "full to the bursting point," often holding five times as many people as they were designed to accommodate.
Another punishment of choice in locales where widespread sabotage was suspected was mass deportation of the population to slave labor camps. December 1932 marked the beginning of mass deportations of entire villages. Records show that in 1932, some 71,236 "specially displaced" deportees were sent to such camps. The next year, this number climbed to 268,091.
The paranoid nature of the Stalin regime, which saw "class enemies" sabotaging it at every turn, is reflected in the following report penned in the early 1930s by the Italian consul in Novorrossiisk: "The enemy is everywhere and must be fought on innumerable fronts in tiny operations: here a field needs hoeing, there a few hundredweight of corn are stashed; a tractor is broken here, another sabotaged there; a third has gone astray. . . . A depot has been raided, the books have been cooked, the directors of the kolkhozy, through incompetence or dishonesty, never tell the truth about the harvest . . . and so on, infinitely, everywhere in this enormous country. . . . The enemy is in every house, in village after village."
In November 1932 the Politburo ordered all collective farms that had fallen short of their government-mandated production quotas raided and emptied of every last ounce of grain they contained. When farmers told the inspectors that they were not hiding any grain from the government, they were often tortured until they confessed. Among the common methods of torture were the following: (a) the workers were stripped bare and exposed to freezing temperatures; sometimes they were stretched out and scalded on white-hot stoves before being placed in the cold; (b) the workers' feet and clothes were doused with gasoline and set ablaze; the flames were then snuffed out and this procedure was repeated until they revealed where their hidden grain was stored; (c) the workers were lined up against a wall for simulated executions.
Forced by such brutal measures to hand over to the government their meager grain reserves, millions of destitute peasants from the rich agricultural regions of Russia headed for the cities, as noted earlier. But Stalin eventually took steps to combat, as he put it, "kulak infiltration of the towns," and to "liquidate social parasitism." In December 1932, he and Soviet Prime Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed an order banning "by all means necessary . . . the large-scale departure of peasants from Ukraine and the northern Caucusus for the towns." They announced that every citizen would thenceforth have to register and carry, at all times, newly assigned identity papers. To justify these measures, the December order read: "The Central Committee and the government are in possession of definite proof that this massive exodus of the peasants has been organized by the enemies of the Soviet regime, by counterrevolutionaries, and by Polish agents as a propaganda coup against the process of collectivization in particular and the Soviet government in general." Stalin also suspended the sale of railway tickets in regions affected by the famine. His aim was to trap people inside the hunger zones, with no chance of escape, and let them slowly starve to death.
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