Joseph Stalin

The Soviet Union, at the time of its conception, looked to establish a state which would do away with the tensions created by economic inequality. This would be achieved through a system which ensured everyone was equal, not only in terms of opportunity but also outcome. But Joseph Stalin saw the system very differently. For him, power had to be concentrated, and all dissent eliminated. How did he achieve this? Let's find out!

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Table of contents

    Joseph Stalin facts

    Joseph Stalin was born in Gori, Georgia in 1878. He abandoned his original name, loseb Dzhugashvili, adopting the title of Stalin (which in Russian translates as 'man of steel') in the early stages of his revolutionary activity. These activities began in 1900, when he joined the political underground.

    From the beginning, Stalin was a gifted organiser and orator. His early revolutionary activity, which saw him work his way through the industrial regions of the Caucuses, involved inciting revolutionary activity among workers. During this time, Stalin also became affiliated with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), who advocated for the establishment of a socialist state.

    In 1903, the RSDLP split into two factions: the moderate Mensheviks, and the radical Bolsheviks. This was a significant development in Stalin's political career, as he joined the Bolsheviks and began working closely with their leader, Vladimir Lenin.

    By 1912, Stalin had been promoted within the Bolshevik party and held a seat on the first Central Committee, in which it was decided that the party would break away entirely from the RSDLP. One year later, in 1913, Stalin was sent into exile in Siberia by the Russian Tsar for a period of four years.

    Returning to Russia in 1917, at a time when the Tsar was removed from power and replaced by the first Provincial government in Russian history, Stalin got back to work. Alongside Lenin, he worked to organise the overthrow of the government and install a communist regime in Russia. On the 7th of November 1917, they achieved their aim, in what would become known (rather confusingly) as the October Revolution.

    Following this, from 1918 to 1920, Russia entered a period of vicious civil war. During this time, Stalin held powerful positions in the Bolshevik government. However, it was in 1922, when he became Secretary General of the Central Committee, that Stalin found a position from which he could fulfil his ambitions.

    Joseph Stalin portrait + joseph stalin facts + studysmarterFig 1: Portrait of Joseph Stalin, Wikimedia Commons

    Joseph Stalin rise to power

    Up until 1922, everything seemed to be going in Stalin's favour. The combination of luck and forethought that came to define his political career had carried him to the position of Secretary General of the new Bolshevik government. As well as this, he had also established himself as a key figure in the Politburo of the party.

    In Soviet Russian politics, the Politburo was the central policy-making body of the government

    However, one year before his death, Lenin issued a warning that Stalin should never be granted power. In what is known as his 'testament', Lenin proposed that Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary. Therefore, one of Lenin's closest allies, Leon Trotsky, was viewed by many Bolsheviks as his natural successor upon his death in 1924.

    But Stalin was prepared to take action upon Lenin's death. He quickly set about developing an elaborate cult dedicated to the former leader, deifying him as a religious figure who rescued Russia from the evils of imperialism. At the head of this cult, of course, was Stalin himself.

    Over the next two years, Stalin formed a number of power coalitions with key figures in the government and Politburo, such as Lev Kemenev and Nikolay Bukharin. Retaining his power in the Politburo, Stalin gradually became the most influential man in government whilst remaining officially outside of it in the capacity of General Secretary.

    Feared for his ruthless pragmatism and total dedication to attaining power, he would betray many of his key allies, ultimately executing a great deal of them during his time as leader. Stalin's rise to power was complete by 1928, when he began reversing some of the key policies implemented by Lenin, with little to no fear of opposition within the Bolshevik ranks.

    Leon Trotsky

    As for Trotsky, he was quickly forgotten about by all those who valued their political positions and personal interests. Banished from the Soviet Union in 1929, he would spend the remainder of his years in exile. Eventually Stalin's agents caught up with him in Mexico, where he was assassinated on the 22nd of August 1940.

    Joseph Stalin WW2

    In 1939, when it became abundantly clear that intention of the German Nazi party to conquer Europe and install a global fascist regime, Stalin saw an opportunity for Russia to gain more power and influence on the continent.

    Signing a non-aggression pact with Hitler, Stalin used the first two years of the war to develop his influence in the Baltic region of Europe, annexing Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and portions of Romania. By 1941, he adopted the secondary title of chairman of the Council of the People's Commissars, citing the increasingly threatening behaviour of their German ally.

    On the 22nd of June 1941, the German air force conducted an unexpected and unprovoked bombing campaign over Russia. By winter of the same year, Nazi forces were advancing towards the capital city of Moscow. Stalin remained there, organising the Russian forces surrounding the city.

    For one year, the Nazi siege of Moscow continued. In the winter of 1942, the Russian troops won a decisive victory in the battle of Stalingrad. By the summer of 1943, the Nazis were in a full retreat out of Russian territory. They had failed to hold on to any ground and had been decimated by the Russian forces, as well as the brutal winter they faced there.

    Ultimately, WW2 proved fruitful for Stalin. Not only did he gain the credibility internally as the heroic war general who defeated the Nazis, but he also gained international recognition and participated in the post-War conferences of Yalta and Potsdam (1945).

    Joseph Stalin potsdam conference + joseph stalin ww2 + studysmarterFig 2: Stalin pictured at the Potsdam Conference, 1945, Wikimedia Commons

    Joseph Stalin policies

    Let's look at Stalin's most influential - and often brutal - policies during his 25-year rule of the Soviet Union.

    Policies Pre-World War Two

    As we have already established, Stalin had effectively established his position at the head of the Soviet government by 1928. So, what policies did he introduce over the course of the eleven years before the Second World War?


    Perhaps the most famous of Stalin's policies was his fixation on economic five-year-plans, in which goals were introduced to set quotas and targets for industries across the Soviet Union. The first set of plans, which Stalin announced in 1928 to last until 1933, was centred on the collectivisation of agriculture.

    Agricultural collectivisation, as a policy, aimed to eliminate individual and private landholdings in the agricultural sector. This meant that, in theory, all producers of grain, wheat, and other food sources were bound by the Soviet state to meet quotas. The result of this policy was meant to be the total elimination of food poverty throughout the Soviet Union; thus, the state was entrusted with the fair redistribution of resources produced.

    The result, however, was very different. One of the most horrific outcomes came in Ukraine, where collectivisation led to the death of millions of agricultural workers through starvation. Lasting from 1932 to 1933, this period of enforced famine has come to be known as Holodomor in Ukraine.

    The Great Purges

    By 1936, Stalin's obsession with organisation combined with the power he had attained led to a state of heightened paranoia. As a result, he organised a brutal massacre - known as the Purges - in 1936. Utilising the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), Stalin organised a series of show trials for those he feared were plotting against him.

    In 1936, three such trials were held in Moscow. The accused were prominent members of the old Bolshevik party, including his former ally Lev Kamenev, who had facilitated the October Revolution in 1917. In the wake of intense psychological and physical torture, all 16 of the accused were sentenced to death.

    These trials paved the way for a series of Purges, which lasted for two years and saw many prominent members of the government and the army killed on Stalin's orders. Stalin's use of the NKVD to commit these horrendous murders became a defining legacy of his time in power.

    Policies Post-World-War-Two

    Following the end of the Second World War, Stalin used his new-found influence on the global stage to set about developing the Soviet Union's influence in Eastern Europe. Known as the Eastern Bloc, countries such as Albania, Poland, Hungary and Eastern Germany came under the control of the Soviet Union.

    To solidify control in these areas, Stalin installed 'puppet leaders' in each government. This meant that, despite maintaining a superficial image of national sovereignty, countries in the Eastern Bloc were under the control and direction of Stalin's government. In the post-war years, Stalin increased the number of individuals living under his control by a staggering 100 million.

    Joseph Stalin beliefs

    Stalin's beliefs are difficult to pin down. It is of no doubt that he was an incredibly influential figure in the twentieth century, and therefore it is important to analyse what beliefs drove him towards his ultimately brutal time in power.

    Socialism in one country

    One of Stalin's key tenants was the belief in 'socialism in one country', which represented a radical break from previous communist theories. The original view of communist revolution, which was developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the early 19th century, advocated for a global revolution. In this view, it would only take one revolution in one country to set off a chain reaction and bring about the end of capitalism.

    For Stalin, socialism's key struggle took place within national borders. Fixated on the idea of counter revolutionaries who would threaten communism in Russia, Stalin's beliefs were grounded in an internal 'class-war' between the capitalist class and the labouring classes within Russia. Furthermore, Stalin's belief in 'socialism in one country' allowed him to frame Russia's existence as constantly under threat from the capitalist Western countries.

    Strong State

    Another key belief of Stalin's was his commitment to the state as the entity which maintained communism. This belief again represented a radical break from the foundations of the communist ideology, which always envisioned a 'withering away' of the state once communism was achieved.

    For Stalin, this was not a desirable structure through which communism could effectively operate. As a vehement planner, he framed the state as the driving force behind the goals of communism. This meant collectivising industries to be under its control, as well as purging those who were perceived as a threat to the stability of the state.

    Joseph Stalin Lenin funeral + Joseph Stalin Beliefs + studysmarterFig 3: Stalin depicted at the funeral of Vladimir Lenin, 1924, Wikimedia Commons

    Joseph Stalin - Key takeaways

    • Stalin was active in the Russian revolutionary movement from 1900 onwards.
    • Upon the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, he established himself as the most powerful man in the Soviet Union.
    • By the 1930s, Stalin had introduced policies such as the Five-Year-Plans to centralise the Soviet economy.
    • During the same period, he carried out the Great Purges.
    • WW2 and its aftermath allowed Stalin to establish himself as a leader on the world-stage.


    1. Fig 1: Stalin portrait ( by unidentified photographer licensed by Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (
    2. Fig 2: stalin potsdam ( by Fotograaf Onbekend / Anefo licensed by Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (
    3. Fig 3: 'Lenin's funeral' ( by Isaak Brodsky licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Joseph Stalin

    What is Joseph Stalin most famous for? 

    Stalin is most famous for leading the Soviet Union from 1928 until his death in 1953. During this time, he instigated a number of brutal policies which changed the face of both Russia and Europe in general.

    What did Joseph Stalin believe in? 

    Stalin's beliefs are hard to fully understand, as he was a committed pragmatist in many areas. However, two beliefs which he expressed a commitment to in his lifetime are socialism in one country and a strong, central state.

    What did Joseph Stalin do in WW2? 

    In the initial 2 years of WW2, Stalin agreed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. Afterwards, he defeated the invading German forces in the battle of Leningrad in 1942.

    What are 3 facts about Joseph Stalin? 

    Stalin translates from Russian as 'man of steel', Stalin was exiled from Russia from 1913 until 1917, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union from the position of General Secretary

    Why was Joseph Stalin important? 

    Stalin is considered an important historical figure as his - often brutal - actions changed the landscape of modern European history.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What does the name 'Stalin' translate as from Russian?

    Which political party, oficially formed in 1912, did Stalin help to establish?

    Which two key beliefs did Stalin hold?


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