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Diplomacy and Conflict • Negotiating Peace: Diplomacy During WWII
Overview

An important member of the Bolshevik Party during the Russian Revolution of 1917, Joseph Stalin rose to become the successor to Vladimir Lenin as the leader of the Soviet Union. Stalin shaped the early Soviet Union; he grew the country at the expense of the Soviet population and achieved a police state of unmatched proportions. He also led his country to victory in World War II as Russian soldiers and civilians absorbed the majority of casualties suffered by the Allied forces. Finally, he was one of the primary architects of the postwar division between East and West.

Early Life

Stalin (which means "steel" in Russian) was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on December 21, 1879, in Gori, Georgia. Stalin's parents were simple peasants, and his father supported the family as a cobbler. Like the majority of the population in the Georgian countryside, Stalin grew up in poverty. He did receive a good education, however, and he did especially well in history and geography. He began to learn Russian at age nine, adding it to his native Georgian. In 1894, he graduated near the top of his class from a local church school in his hometown and received a scholarship to attend Tiflis Theological Seminary, a leading school in Georgian society. At the seminary, Stalin was exposed to Marxism and became involved in revolutionary circles that caused his interest in school to wane. He was expelled from the seminary in 1899.

Road to Power

By 1900, Stalin was deeply involved in the Marxist revolutionary movement in Georgia. Following several conflicts with authorities, he was exiled to Siberia. When he escaped, Stalin grew involved with the Bolshevik Party and became a member in 1905. In 1912, he was nominated by Lenin to the party's highest governing body, the Central Committee. In the next few years, Stalin's duties were primarily operational and theoretical. He would retain this role of a behind-the-scenes operator through the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War that followed. Stalin's chief role during most of the revolution was that of propagandist and supporter of Lenin. Although he remained in the background, Stalin's work was critical to the success of the revolution. Lenin's favor led Stalin to gain additional power in the Communist Party. However, other prominent revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin had doubts about Stalin's personality and abilities.

On April 3, 1922, Stalin was nevertheless granted the position that would vault him to the position of leader of the Soviet Union: general secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU. From that position, Stalin was able to wield enormous power. Lenin soon had a stroke that would ultimately lead to his death less than two years later. Lenin's poor health led to uncertainty among the party leadership. During this time, Lenin wrote what became known as his Testament, in which he alleged that Stalin was too "rude" and "coarse" to be an effective leader of the party. Lenin's comments came too late and were somewhat ambiguous on the question of succession. Stalin's power allowed him to block the Testament from being used against him and he moved carefully to solidify his authority. He ruled the country along with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, two of Lenin's closest compatriots, following Lenin's death on January 21, 1924. By 1928, Stalin had solidified his grip on power by first moving against his rivals such as Kamenev and Zinoviev.

The Ruler

From that point on, Stalin ruled without significant obstacles to his authority. His first priority was to create the communist state that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had once envisioned. In 1929, he ordered the first of many five-year plans to industrialize the Soviet Union. He also ordered the collectivization of agriculture and created large agricultural communities that would feed the growing industrial state. The Soviet Union's economy and industry did grow, but collectivization was achieved with dramatic sacrifices of the Russian people. Famines resulted in 1931 and in 1932. Some historians estimate that as many as 10 million people died as a result of collectivization and the resulting famines.

In 1934, Stalin used an expanded secret police system to move against the old Bolsheviks that he viewed as potential enemies in what became known as the Great Purge. In 1938, the terror subsided, but not before millions were sent to the Gulag (a system of Soviet prison camps in the northern reaches of Russia or in Siberia), and all of Stalin's potential or imagined enemies were eliminated. Many of those who were sent to the camps died, in addition to the millions who were killed by execution or famine. In their absence, Stalin developed a cult around himself: loyal party members wrote songs of praise to him and rewrote history texts for school children.

World War II

In 1939, a new danger threatened the Soviet Union: Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Hitler wanted the lands east of Germany. Stalin secured a temporary peace for the Soviet Union by signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact (also known as the nonaggression pact) with Hitler in that year. Stalin hoped dividing up Poland between the nations would appease Hitler's appetite for land, but it did not. In the summer of 1941, immediately after the Germans conquered France, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. The attack caught Stalin and the Soviet Union unprepared. Initially, the attack went very well for the Germans, who made it all the way to Moscow before winter.

The harsh Russian winter trapped the Germans, however, and they suffered severe losses from disease and starvation during early 1942. Stalin rallied the Russian people by calling on Russian patriotism to save the country from the German invaders. He also drew on the military and economic resources created by the industrialization of the Soviet Union and the assistance of the Allies. Soviet (and Allied) fortunes began to change in 1943 with victory in the Battle of Stalingrad, and by the spring of 1945, the Germans were beaten. The Soviet Union had advanced far into Central Europe during the final months of the war, and Stalin emerged victorious.

End of Life

Through a series of conferences with Allied leaders, Stalin secured all territory in Eastern Europe occupied by the Red Army at the time of the German surrender for the Soviet Union. Stalin saw those lands not only as territory that could be exploited for the benefit of the Soviet Union (recalling World War I) but also as a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and the West. By the late 1940s, the boundary between the Soviet sphere and the nations of Western Europe became known as the "iron curtain" by Winston Churchill, and the Cold War began. During the early 1950s, Stalin's health began to wane and his suspicions were further amplified. On his death on March 5, 1953, there is evidence that Stalin was planning another purge against his supposed enemies. He died as a result of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 73.

"steel" "rude" "coarse" Stalin's "iron curtain"

Further Reading

Benvenuti, Francesco. The Bolsheviks and the Red Army, 1918–1922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988; Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York: Viking, 1991; McDermott, Kevin, and Jeremy Agnew. The Comintern: A History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997; Volkogonov, Dmitri Antonovich. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. Trans. Harold Shukman. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.

MLA Citation

"Joseph Stalin." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2020, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/318221. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

Entry ID: 2171547

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