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The nineteenth century was a time of great change and upheaval for humanity. The collapse of entire governmental systems that had been the status quo for centuries, the fall of empires, implementation of brand-new systems of governments, the two bloodiest wars in human history, the splitting of the atom, the subsequent Cold War between the world’s two superpowers and their allies, and the potential extinction of the human race all characterized this century. It then goes without saying that such an extraordinary period would feature some of the most extraordinary people, and also some of the most heinous. The person that will be talked about for the remainder of this paper will be a member of the latter group of individuals. His birth name in his native Georgia was Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, but the world would come to know him as Joseph Stalin, the man of steel and undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union until his death in 1953. It is, therefore, the goal of this paper to detail the life of Joseph Stalin to the best of its ability within a short time.
Born in the Russian Empire in the former Kingdom of Georgia in 1878, Stalin was born to a poor family and an abusive father. He would study at a church school and learn Russian there while reading the writings of Karl Marx before being expelled from the school. He would continue to live in Georgia and eventually would become increasingly involved in politics and labor demonstrations before joining Lenin’s faction of Bolsheviks. Following multiple arrests and daring escapes, Lenin would tap Stalin to serve on the first Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. Exiled to Siberia in 1913, Stalin would return to Petrograd during the Spring of 1917 and take part in their overthrow of the government in October of the same year. Following this overthrow, Stalin would become one of the most important members of the Council of People’s Commissars alongside Lenin, Trotsky, and Sverdlov. Stalin advocated and strongly pushed for the elimination of free press that was hostile to the Bolsheviks and the creation of a secret police force known as Cheka which would spawn the Red Scare and brutally kill and suppress opposition elements in the early days of Lenin’s reign and the Russian Civil War that would engulf the country from 1917-1920. During the course of the brutal Russian civil war, Stalin would take charge of a number of positions including taking charge of Cheka forces in the pivotal Battle of Tsaritsyn, during his time there Stalin would be noted for his brutality as he executed people without trial and sent thousands of Red Army soldiers to their deaths in mass assaults, something that would become a trademark of the Soviet Union in the early parts of World War Two.
Following the Soviet victory in the Russian Civil War and the subsequent Polish-Soviet War, Lenin and his Bolsheviks would continue to consolidate power and expand the borders back into areas that were previously claimed by the empire. In 1922 Stalin would be nominated as the General Secretary of the party by Lenin himself. In 1922 Lenin would suffer a stroke and would die two years later in 1924. It is worth noting that while Lenin valued Stalin as an ally, in notes to his wife he clearly believed that Stalin was not fit to be the next undisputed leader of the Soviet Union and had many disagreements with the man. Stalin would maintain his position as the General Secretary of the party until his death and would make the position the most important one in the Soviet Union over the next coming decades. After Lenin’s death, Stalin’s primary opponent for the leadership of the Communist party was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was responsible for the creation of the Red Army and was a famous intellectual and speaker that vied for power with the Georgian. Stalin would form key alliances with opponents of Trotsky and began to remove Trotsky from his positions in the government, before exiling him completely in 1929. Stalin would then turn on his allies and send many of them to the gulag, allowing him to consolidate power and become the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union by 1929. It was only after his rise to power that Stalin would truly begin to show his cunning and brutality.
It is worth noting that before Stalin’s rise to complete power in 1929, Stalin implemented a new agricultural policy and sought collectivization of Russian farms. This policy led to the starvation of millions of people in Ukraine in the Great Famine of 1932-1933 and millions more in the wider Soviet famine of 1932-1933. The famine was man-made and caused directly by the decisions of Stalin and his government. The famine was a result of Stalin’s first five-year plan in which he hoped to rapidly industrialize the poor Russian state from an agricultural backwater to an industrial powerhouse that could compete with their more advanced European neighbors. While the first five-year plan was largely a failure, Stalin declared it a success in 1932 and it did feature some positives that would be critical to the survival of the Soviet Union in the tumultuous years to come. The five-year plan would also place the Soviet Union on a path to becoming a global superpower. Much more death and destruction lay ahead for the Soviet Union in the decades to come under Joseph Stalin, some of which was caused by foreign actors, but much would be the result of decisions by Stalin himself.
Starting in 1934, Stalin would begin what would become known as the Great Purge. The purge, as its name implies, was the brutal repression of actors and elements within the Communist government. Stalin would use this purge as an excuse to eliminate anyone that he saw as a threat to his power. Throughout this period, Stalin would put on great mock trials in which the accused would admit guilt, most often after suffering weeks of torture and personal promises from Stalin that he would spare them and their families after their admission of guilt, a promise that was broken more often than not. Stalin would tie their crimes together as a conspiracy to overthrow his government in support of the exiled Trotsky and Fascist spies operating within the Soviet Union. The purge would also decimate the command structure of the military as Stalin would order the expulsion of dozens of the Red Army’s top commanders. Communist party members and Army officers were not the only ones targeted by Stalin’s purge. A number of the academic and cultural elite that resided within Russia were also arrested, tortured, and executed by Stalin and the NKVD, his new secret police. Following this period, Stalin and his nation would face challenges they had never experienced before.
Stalin recognized the threat the Nazis posed but was aware that at the current time that Hitler was making his land grabs in Europe, the Soviet Union was not prepared for a war against a newly revived Germany. In 1939 Hitler and Stalin agreed to a non-aggression pact that divided up Poland between the two powers. Following the conclusion of this pact, Hitler kicked off World War Two by invading the new Polish state in 1939. This would lead to declarations of war against Germany by Britain and France. Stalin and the Soviets would seize the eastern portion of Poland and round up and execute key parts of the former Polish state such as academics, and army officers. Germany and Hitler would shock Stalin by invading in 1941, which all Soviet intelligence pointed towards, but Stalin refused to believe. The Germans would sweep through Russia, destroying and capturing entire divisions of red army soldiers throughout the Summer and Autumn of 1941. The Germans would make it all the way to Moscow, in which Stalin would stay as he believed his retreat would be a devasting blow to Russian morale. Stalin would once again utilize the mass assault tactics he had used against the White Army in the Russian Civil War and cost his army millions of lives. Stalin would also purge the officers of the Army once more and issue orders that any captured soldiers were traitors and another order that decreed that any soldiers retreating without orders would be shot by Russian forces behind the lines. This order being the infamous “Not a step back” order, or Order No. 227. Stalin was determined to live up to his name which meant Steel in Russian and be the Man of Steel that he believed Russia needed at the time. The Germans would attack the city of Stalingrad, which would prove to be the turning point for the war. The Russians and General Winter would stall the Nazis at Stalingrad and win the battle in 1942, marking the turning point in the war. The Soviets would then go on to steamroll the Germans and by 1945 the Soviet flag would be waved from atop the Reichstag in Berlin.
Stalin and the Soviets would control much of Eastern Europe after the war as the continent was divided up between the United States and its allies, and the Soviets and their puppet countries. Stalin would continue his brutal policy of eliminating any opposition and threats to his power, going so far to even imprison millions of his returning victorious army. The Soviet Union would experience another famine in 1946. Stalin would face the new threat of the western powers by greatly expanding his own army and achieving the completion of Russia’s first nuclear bomb in 1949. Stalin would begin another purge within the Soviet Union in 1948, as he would this time target the Jewish population of Russia. Stalin would become increasingly sickly and in poor health in the early 1950s and would mostly retire to his estates. In 1953 he would suffer from a cerebral hemorrhage and die on March 5th, 1953. Ensuing his death, the governing body of the Soviet Union would implement new policies to ensure that no single person would ever rise to the level of power that Stalin had during his life.
Joseph Stalin was an incredibly brutal dictator that would not hesitate to execute entire families if he thought they presented a threat to his power. It is worth noting, however that even though he was incredibly cruel, he was stunningly clever and able to manipulate those around him into doing as he wished. He guided the Soviet Union through its toughest times and established them as a global superpower that influences are still felt to this day.
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