“The Boss,” as he was called by those under him, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili was born in Gori, Georgia, in the Russian Empire in 1878. His father, “Besso,” became a drunk, and beat his wife, “Keke,” and son. They moved a lot, and finally Besso abandoned Keke and Iosif. Keke, born a serf, was a tough, but righteous and religiously pious woman; she also beat her son. Keke wanted her son to be a priest.
Gori was a rough and poor town. Street gangs and crime were common, and Iosif, small but wiry, was known to participate in the fighting. Nevertheless, Iosif was a good student. The Russian language was required in the Russian empire, and Iosif learned it, but always had a Georgian accent. Education was by rote and corporal punishment was rampant; one teacher rapping the students’ knuckles if their eyes wandered. Iosif won a scholarship to Seminary at the age of 16. The seminary was very Spartan, dogmatic, and severe corporal and psychological punishment was normal.
In the seminary, he discovered revolutionary material, including Darwin and Marx, destroying his belief in religion. “They are lying to us,” he said to a fellow student. Living a double life, one secret, at night, he got involved in Georgian revolutionary activities. He had chosen the name “Koba,” a Russian, fictional Robin Hood-like character. There, quite a few other students became revolutionaries from that Seminary at that time. Ioseph was dismissed for not taking an exam just before graduating, maybe because he couldn’t pay the rapidly rising fees. He had become a revolutionary, joining an organization that later became the violent part of the Communist party, the Bolsheviks. It was a life of safe houses, forged documents, and secrecy. Koba was brilliant at organizing workers and also mixing with criminal elements. He collected and directed “enforcers” like Kamo, a brutal, violent, sociopath. While in prison, he became the boss of the prisoners: he was inured to physical punishment.
Sent to Baku by the revolutionary committee, Koba ordered the murders of many Black Hundreds (right-wing supporters of the Tsar), and conducted protection rackets and ransom kidnappings against the oil tycoons of Baku. He also operated counterfeiting operations and robberies. He befriended the criminal gangs; Koba’s gangsterism upset the Bolshevik and Menshevik intelligentsia, but he was too influential with Lenin and indispensable to be opposed. As a revolutionary in Tsarist times, he was arrested eight times and escaped seven times, before the Russian Revolution in 1917; but he changed the facts after he was General Secretary, obscuring one of his arrests. It was suspected by some of his fellow Bolsheviks that Koba was a double-agent, a provocateur, for he seemed to go to-and-fro without any visible support, without difficulty, and was not arrested with everybody else in a particular Tsarist roundup. Koba, most likely known by Lenin as a double-agent, played the game well, with internal party members sometimes sacrificed for the cause. No doubt Koba used this policy for his own purposes also. At one point, when complaints were getting serious, he was arrested, and rumors were dropped for the time being.
In 1913, Koba published Marxism and the National Question, the first time he used the pseudonym Stalin (meaning “man of steel”), which rhymes with Lenin. This treatise was written while he was briefly in exile in Vienna and presents an orthodox, if somewhat unoriginal, Marxist position, mimicking Lenin. Theory was not Stalin’s strong point, and he agreed, later describing it as poppycock. But he did understand the use of Communist propaganda, where no meant yes, and yes meant no, depending on the situation.
Lenin, the clear, undisputed, leader of the Bolsheviks, praised Stalin for this work, finding him useful early in his career. Lenin used him in many situations that required his expertise in secrecy and connection to criminal elements in using whatever was necessary to take control. Lenin nominated Stalin for the first secret committee to rule the Communist party, which later became the Politburo.
When the October Revolution of 1917 broke out in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks quickly converged there and Moscow. A relative unknown at large, Stalin was in charge of Lenin’s security. The brilliant and charismatic Leon Trotsky, one of the primary orators in the Revolution, became head of the Red Army, which eventually, bloodedly, took over the Russian empire.
On April 3, 1922, , with Lenin’s blessing, Stalin was made General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, a post that he subsequently built up into the most powerful in the country. This position was seen to be a minor one within the party (Stalin was sometimes referred to as Comrade Card-Index by fellow party members) but actually had potential as a power base as it allowed Stalin to fill the party with his allies. Lenin, trusting Stalin over Trotsky, gave Stalin the task to control the party. Only shortly before his own death, did Lenin realize that Stalin did his job too well, but by then it was too late.
In the struggle for leadership after Lenin’s death one thing was evident; whoever ended up ruling the party had to demonstrate fealty to the memory of Lenin. Stalin did so by organizing the late leader’s funeral, after which he made a speech professing an undying loyalty to Lenin that was almost religious in nature.
An important feature of Stalin’s rise to power is the way that he manipulated his opponents and played them off against each other. Stalin formed a “troika”; of himself, Zinoviev, and Kamenev against Trotsky. When Trotsky had been eliminated, Stalin then joined Bukharin and Rykov against Zinoviev and Kamenev, emphasising their vote against the insurrection in 1917. In 1927 during the 15th Party Congress Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the party and Kamenev lost his seat on the Central Committee. Stalin soon turned against his erstwhile allies, Bukharin and Rykov.
Ordering the killing of practically all those who knew him before the revolution; and then killing those who killed them, etc., slowly, cautiously, Stalin attained total and absolute control of the Soviet Union. In light of revelations from the Soviet archives, historians now estimate that nearly 700,000 people were executed in the course of Stalin’s terror, with the great mass of victims being ordinary peasants and workers. Stalin did haul the Soviet Union by his bare, bloody, hands from a backward pre-industrial country to a largely industrial and military superpower. Estimates from 10 to 60 million deaths were attributed to Stalin’s policies towards industrialization, but no one knows the exact costs, and we never will.
“If the eyes wander, their conscious is not clear.” — The Boss
Stalin: Edvard Radzinsky