Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin
Soviet LeaderPrewar Years
The political and cultural aims of Stalin's regime were to identify the totalitarian rule of the Communist party with stability and legitimacy. The basic Marxist tenet of the ultimate "withering away" of the state was all but repudiated. Instead the state was glorified. The shift to the right was also manifest in the reorganization of the armed forces along disciplinarian lines reminiscent of the reign of Czar Nicholas I; in the official return to conservative divorce and abortion laws; in the gradual replacement of intransigent measures against the Russian Orthodox Church by a policy that made the church an instrument of the state; in the abandonment of experimental education in favor of rigid instruction; in the insistence on political criteria in the arts; and, most important, in the rebirth of nationalism and the mounting distrust of the West and of internationalism.
Stalin maintained that his program of consolidating "socialism in one country," although demanding immense sacrifice and discipline, would render the USSR immune to attacks by capitalist nations and would demonstrate the superiority of the socialist system. He thus repudiated, for the time being, the role of the Soviet Union as torchbearer of world revolution.
This process was accompanied by repressive measures and terror, which led to the collectivization famines (1930–33) and political purges of the 1930s. Stalin made his dictatorship absolute by liquidating all opposition within the party. The murder (1934) of S. M. Kirov, Stalin's lieutenant, led to prosecutions for an alleged plot—vast, Trotsky-inspired, and aided by Nazi Germany—to overthrow Stalin's government. In the purge trials many old Bolsheviks, including Kamenev, Zinoviev, Aleksey Rykov, and Bukharin, were accused, pleaded guilty, and were executed.
The purges extended even to the head of the secret police, G. G. Yagoda, and to some of the highest army officers, notably Marshal Tukhachevsky. The terror reached its height under the Yezhovshchina, the period (1937–38) when N. I. Yezhov directed the secret police. As the purges drew to a close (1939), the efforts of the secret police were concentrated on eliminating those elements of the population that might be disloyal in case of war. The Soviet system of forced labor camps, the Gulag, was hugely expanded during this period.
In internal policy, Stalin promulgated a new constitution in 1936 (see Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Although it contained symbols of democratic institutions, effective political power was reserved to the Communist party as the vanguard of the working people. Although it reaffirmed the Soviet principle of autonomy for the various nationalities, the constitution in effect made it impossible for republics or other national groups to secede from the union.
Until 1934, Stalin had pursued the policy, initiated by the Treaty of Rapallo (see Rapallo, Treaty of, of friendship with Germany. After Adolf Hitler became (1933) chancellor of Germany, Stalin strove for international acceptance and cooperation, joining (1934) the League of Nations and attempting a rapprochement with Great Britain and France. The failure of such a rapprochement and the growing danger of war led Stalin to conciliate Hitler.
The nonaggression pact with Germany (Aug., 1939) was designed to keep the USSR out of World War II. The territorial concessions and strategic advantages granted the Soviet Union by Germany at the expense of other East European nations contributed to Stalin's underestimation of the German threat. The Nazi invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, took Stalin—who in May had taken over the premiership from V. M. Molotov—by surprise; it temporarily paralyzed his leadership and nearly led to the collapse of the Soviet army.
The extent to which Stalin as a military leader subsequently contributed to Soviet victory has been fiercely debated among Soviet and Western authors; his forceful leadership was probably a greater asset than his military capability. He directed the war effort from the Kremlin, where he remained when the rest of the government was evacuated. He was voted the rank of marshal of the Soviet Union (1943) and of generalissimo (1945).
At the Tehran Conference (1943) and the Yalta Conference (1945) with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and at the Potsdam Conference (1945), Stalin proved an astute diplomat. His diplomatic skill led to the recognition by the Western powers of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Having further strengthened his personal power in the course of World War II, Stalin used it ruthlessly to consolidate his control within the Soviet Union and the emerging Soviet empire against what he perceived as renewed capitalist threats. Always suspicious of Communist movements outside his control, he tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the Chinese Communists from taking power after World War II and broke with Josip Broz Tito in 1948 over the question of Yugoslavia's independent Communist policies.
Stalin's paranoia during the last years of his life led to increased repression and persecution of his closest collaborators, reminiscent of the purges of the 1930s. His public appearances, which had always been rare, became even less frequent in the late 1940s and early 50s. His remoteness only stimulated the public worship bestowed upon him, which verged on apotheosis.
Stalin died Mar. 5, 1953, of a cerebral hemorrhage. His body was entombed next to Lenin's in the mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow. Little is known of Stalin's private life except that he married twice and that both wives died (the second, Nadezhda Sergeyevna Alliluyeva, by suicide in 1932). Yakov, his son by his first wife, died in Nazi captivity. He had a son and a daughter by his second wife. His son, Vasily, was an officer in the Soviet air force before his death in 1962. His daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, defected to the United States in 1967.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.