Joseph Stalin’s Political Career

Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1953. Although he ruled with an iron hand and was responsible for millions of deaths, he initially studied in a seminary to become a priest. While in the seminary, Stalin started reading books that the monks prohibited, including Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Marx’s theories deeply impressed the young Stalin, and he grew rebellious against the monks and declared himself an atheist. He started participating in secret socialist meetings, and at 21 years old, he left the seminary to engage in revolutionary work.

Early Years

Joseph Stalin was never a brilliant orator like Adolf Hitler or Vladimir Lenin. He did not write books or articles about the misery of working people. Instead, he engaged in practical matters to help the revolutionary cause. Stalin robbed trains, circulated prohibited writings, and organized labor strikes to gain money for revolutionary activities. He was crude and very different from intellectual revolutionaries, but despite this, Lenin noticed his practicality and devotion to the socialist cause. And so, when the Bolsheviks gained power, Lenin assigned Stalin to different positions in the newly-established Soviet rule. Stalin started to accumulate power in 1922 when he was appointed as Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He instantly understood the power to be had and controlled the appointment of members, ensuring he had positioned people he could use to gain more influence. The Communist Party’s intellectuals eventually realized what Stalin had done, but it was too late by then, as Stalin was already too powerful. Lenin, the only person who could seriously oppose him, had already suffered several strokes and was dying. 

The Great Purge

When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin started eliminating the Party’s old officers. He initially dismissed them from their positions and then sent them into exile. However, these expelled officers could still hurl written attacks on Stalin, so the new dictator adopted a new, aggressive strategy. And so, in the late 1930s, Stalin started to hunt down what he called “counter-revolutionaries” and “enemies of the people.” He ordered trials designed to show the people that these counter-revolutionaries had been betraying the socialist cause. They were charged with anti-Soviet activities, sabotage, espionage, and organizing uprisings and were all executed. As a result, almost all the powerful figures who led the Revolution of 1917 were killed. There were six members of the original Political Bureau of the Communist Party, and now Stalin was the only one left. The political theorist and revolutionary Leon Trotsky was sent to exile in 1929 but continued to criticize Stalin. Eventually, an assassin struck Trotsky in the head with an ice pick, which caused his death. These mass killings came to be known as the Great Purge, and it was not only limited to state officers and party members but also included writers, artists, intellectuals, and even astronomers. Anyone who was suspected of having activities that ran counter to the Party was spied on, tried, and executed.

Launching the U.S.S.R. as an Industrial Power

Stalin envied the industrial power of capitalist countries, and so he set out a plan to kick off the Soviet Union’s rapid industrialization. He ordered the collectivization of agricultural lands, which forced farmers to work on lands that were expected to yield more crops. These crops would then be bought at a cheap price by the government and would be fed to industrial workers. Stalin also promoted products in heavy industry and created the Five-Year Plans to control all production in the Soviet Union. 

These steps ultimately resulted in massive industrial growth for the nation and caused the Soviets to proudly compare their blossoming economy with the ongoing depression in the United States. Russia was once a primarily agricultural economy, but it was transforming rapidly into an industrial power. However, this massive growth was at the expense of millions of lives. Peasants who made progress were accused of being counter-revolutionaries and were executed. Millions of arrested citizens were used as laborers and received very cheap pay.

Stopping the German Army

In 1939, Stalin and Hitler signed a non-aggression pact, which stated that the U.S.S.R. and Germany could divide Poland and not attack each other for ten years. Stalin felt comfortable with the agreement and believed that Hitler would abide by it. He not only disregarded warnings from his military advisors that Hitler was planning an attack, but he also ignored warnings from Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

When the German army attacked in 1941, Stalin was stunned. The Russian army’s unpreparedness resulted in massive losses, while Stalin stayed inside his office, not knowing what to do. He had many brilliant military officers killed in the Great Purge, so nobody was able to quickly respond to the Nazi attack. The Soviets’ temporary paralysis allowed the Germans to come to within a few miles of the Kremlin. Eventually, the Soviet army was able to adjust to the military might of the Germans. In the middle of 1943, the German troops hurled their last great assault but failed. The Soviet army kept the momentum and pushed back the Germans continuously. For defeating the Germans, Stalin was hailed as a hero not only in the Soviet Union but also in the West.

End of World War II and Beyond

In 1943, Stalin, along with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, met at the Tehran Conference to discuss strategies for the continuing war. In 1945, as the end of World War 2 neared, the three met again at the Yalta Conference and discussed the new national boundaries in Europe. From July to August of that year, Stalin again met with powerful leaders, including Harry S. Truman, to talk about the enforcement of global peace and to avoid repeating the mistakes of post-World War I agreements. During this conference, Truman casually told Stalin about the United States newly-tested atomic bomb. Stalin remained calm as he had been receiving information about the U.S atomic program since 1941, way before Truman was aware of the project. In August 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in Kazakhstan. This test explosion signaled the rise of Stalin’s Soviet Union as a world superpower.

In the years before his death in 1953, Stalin became commonly known as the man who turned Russia from being an agricultural nation into a nation that brandished atomic weapons. He was looked up to as a hero until Nikita Khrushchev delivered his “Secret Speech” in 1956, proclaiming the evils that Stalin had committed, such as the cult of personality, which he built around himself while outwardly pursuing the goals of the Communist Party. Khrushchev criticized Stalin for the personality cult, stating that the cult of an individual was against the doctrines of Marxism–Leninism. 

Khrushchev also denounced Stalin for violating the Communist Party’s policy of collective leadership, which was the proper distribution of power in the organization. Trotsky’s murder was also brought up by Khrushchev against Stalin, saying that before Stalin came into power, Trotsky was merely treated as an ideological enemy. With Stalin, the concept of the “enemy of the state” was introduced. The part of the speech that discussed the Great Purge came as even more of a shock to the audience. Inappropriate laughter and clapping of hands were reportedly heard at many points during the speech. Confusion was felt mostly in Stalin’s hometown of Georgia, where he had been praised as a hero and genius for many years.

Despite Khrushchev’s speech, some historians say that Stalin was only one man. He may have committed atrocities on a massive scale, but he cannot be blamed for all the terrible things that happened to the U.S.S.R. during his rule. There were millions of civilized people that lived during Stalin’s regime, along with a Communist Party that professed as its goals justice and a better life for all. These historians point out that the Party can not claim innocence while heaping all the blame on Stalin. Furthermore, some historians assert that Khrushchev’s speech only served his political interests.