That Stalin came to lead the Soviet Union following Vladimir Ilych Lenin's death in 1924 was a surprise to nearly everyone. Stalin was a man people underestimated. He was short (five feet, four inches tall) and stocky, with a face pitted by smallpox and a left arm bent permanently by a childhood accident. He mumbled or talked so quietly that he was hard to hear; possibly he was embarrassed at his poor grasp of Russian, which he spoke with an accent. On the eve of the October 1917 revolution, one of Stalin's colleagues on the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet wrote that he gave "the impression … of a grey blur which flickered obscurely and left no trace. There really is nothing more to be said about him." But some by then could see in his eyes a fixity of purpose that promised a good deal more. "He's not an intellectual," noted the American journalist John Reed in 1920. "He's not even particularly well informed, but he knows what he wants. He's got will-power, and he's going to be on top of the pile some day."
He was born in 1879, in the Russian state of Georgia. His family name was Dzhugashvili. (Joseph would take the name Stalin, meaning "man of steel," in the early 1900s.) Possibly he was illegitimate. His father, or the man who raised him, was a cobbler, while his mother was a domestic servant. Joseph attended local schools and was a good student, though inclined to challenge the authority of his teachers. His boyhood hero was Koba, a character in a novel called The Patricide, who battled against the forces of injustice and rewarded the downtrodden with the spoils of his victories. Joseph identified so fully with this Russian Robin Hood that he later took "Koba" as one of his code names.
Stalin had no philosophy in the usual sense of the word. Unlike Marx or Lenin he was not much good at theorizing. He understood Russian history as a narrative of triumph and tragedy and took from it the lesson that an unguarded Russia would be ripe for exploitation or worse. Russia had saved Europe from the Mongols in the thirteenth century, had stopped Napoleon in the nineteenth, and would destroy Adolf Hitler's Reich in the 1940s. Each of these hard-won triumphs had saved civilization. Yet it seemed to Stalin that Russia's reward for its sacrifice was to be attacked yet again; the nation was surrounded by enemies who wished for its demise. Superimposed on this view of Russia's haunted history was a particular version of revolutionary communism. Stalin believed that the revolution required a long period of incubation at home, that it would not be ready for export to other nations until it had totally transformed Russia. Agriculture must be collectivized. The state must control industry, goading factory workers to new heights of production. Art, literature, and even science ought to reflect the noble purposes of the communist state, valorizing the proletariat and refusing to indulge in bourgeois fripperies. Suspicious of Russia's neighbors, suspicious of ideological deviation, suspicious, really, of almost everyone, Stalin built by the 1930s an industrial power and a state ruled by intimidation and terror.
No one knows how many Soviet citizens died as a result of Stalin's agricultural policy or by his direct order. Judging the rich peasants, or kulaks, inherently selfish and therefore incompatible with the goal of collectivization, Stalin eradicated them as a class. When grain production fell short of expectations in 1932, Stalin demanded more. The result was the starvation of perhaps five million Russians. Between 1936 and 1938 Stalin instituted the Terror, in which millions more of his political opponents real or imagined were deported to Siberia or executed following a show trial. On one December day in 1937 Stalin and Molotov signed 3,167 death warrants, then went to a movie. A cult of Stalin developed throughout the country. Poems and songs celebrated the dictator. One of his speeches was pressed onto seven sides of a gramophone record; the eighth side contained nothing but applause.
Once disclosed, the horrors of the Stalinist gulag convinced many observers that Stalin's foreign policy would proceed, by comparably brutal steps, to threaten the world with a bloodbath in the guise of revolution. There was a germ of logic to this fear. If Stalin did not hesitate to murder Russian citizens, why should he have scruples about killing foreigners? Revolutionary ideology would not respect national boundaries. The metaphors used to describe it by those who dreaded it—a conflagration, a disease, or even, in George Kennan's more measured analysis, "a fluid stream"—suggested that Stalinist communism was relentlessly expansionistic.
The reality was a good deal more complicated. Certainly Stalin was opportunistic, looking for trouble spots or turmoil to exploit. He had not abandoned hope of inspiring revolution in other countries, only shelved it temporarily in favor of consolidating control at home. Yet Stalin's first concern was always the preservation of the Soviet state from invasion or erosion from without. There was much to lose—including, of course, his own power. A shrewd foreign policy must, therefore, state the Soviet Union's claim to survival while nevertheless avoiding antagonizing neighboring countries that were capable of destroying the motherland. This meant, for example, that when Germany was restored to its military power under Hitler during the 1930s, Stalin would seek to offset German strength by finding friends among the bourgeois states that were ideologically anathema to him. When it became clear, after the Munich Pact of 1938, that the British and French had no stomach for opposing Hitler's absorption of other countries, Stalin decided to make his own arrangement with the Germans. The result was the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, in which the two nations agreed not to fight each other, and (secretly) to divide Poland and the Baltic states between them. Stalin even promised that if Germany seemed in danger of losing a war, he would send a hundred divisions to the West to defend his new ally. It turned out badly for the Soviet Union, which in June was invaded by the Germans.
Stalin was at first shocked into near paralysis. "Lenin founded our state, and we've fucked it up!" he said. He fled Moscow and failed to communicate with his generals, who were desperate for instructions. But he recovered and began issuing orders. Russia would not surrender. There would be bloody battles, and many lives would be lost—indeed, well over twenty million by the war's end. Germany would be beaten, and the Soviet Union would have a peace that would at last guarantee the protection of the nation against all outside forces.
The Soviet victory over Germany was bought with help from the United States, which provided equipment through President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Lend-Lease program. Stalin was grudgingly appreciative of this aid. Still, he believed that the Americans, along with the British, could have done much more, and he suspected that his new allies wanted Russians and Germans to kill each other in droves, leaving Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill free to dictate the peace. Stalin was especially angry at the allies' failure to open a meaningful second front against Germans in Europe before mid-1944.
It seemed to Stalin that the Russians bore the brunt of the German attack. Over time, however, Stalin found the policy could work to his advantage. Once the Nazis had been defeated at Stalingrad, in February 1943, they fell into retreat, pursued by the Red Army. By the spring of 1944, as the Americans and British were preparing at last to invade Normandy, the Russians had begun arriving at the eastern frontiers of the European nations that had made common cause with the Nazis.
Ultimately, by dint of having the largest army in the region, the Soviets gained predominant influence after the war in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the eastern quarter of Germany. Yugoslavia was controlled by communists. To gain these prizes seemed to Stalin nothing more than a reasonable division of the postwar spoils. He did not picture the eastern European satellites as an entering wedge toward world domination but rather as recompense for Russian suffering at Nazi hands and the logical result of occupation policies established by his allies. And he sought a buffer zone of politically compliant states along the western face of the Soviet Union.
It was not so much ideological conformity as simple cooperation that Stalin sought, in eastern Europe and elsewhere. He hoped that the Americans and British would allow him the buffer zone and a good deal of reconstruction aid as well. Churchill, after all, had in 1944 conceded major Soviet influence in several eastern European countries. Franklin Roosevelt endorsed a spheres of influence arrangement in the postwar world, to include a Soviet sphere roughly east of the Elbe River. Meeting with Stalin at Yalta in February 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt had seemed to accept a face-saving formula on the composition of the emerging Polish government. Stalin felt sure that the others would permit him to do essentially what he wanted there. "The logic of his position was simple," as one of Stalin's biographers has written. "He had won the war in order to have good next-door neighbors." He thought his allies accepted this.
Elsewhere Stalin probed in places where his predecessors had long had interests. He pressured the Turks to revise the Montreux Convention, up for renewal, and grant him joint management of the strategically vital Dardanelles strait. He dragged his feet on the matter of withdrawing Soviet troops from northern Iran in 1946, though he had previously agreed to pull out. And he demanded a share of the occupation authority in Japan, having sent his armies against Japanese forces in China in the last days of the war. When the allies remonstrated or acted firmly against him, however, Stalin backed down. The Dardanelles remained Turkish, Soviet troops left Iran without having guaranteed Moscow's access to Iranian oil, and Stalin pretty much conceded his exclusion from Japanese affairs after 1945. He did not want a confrontation with the United States. He emphatically did not want war.
But between April 1945 and March 1946 Stalin came to believe that the British and Americans sought a confrontation with him. Roosevelt's death in April 1945 deprived Stalin of a rival who had nevertheless shown flexibility in negotiations and apparent sympathy for Soviet predicaments. Roosevelt's successor, Harry S. Truman, seemed less inclined to give Stalin the benefit of the doubt. The American use of atomic bombs against Japan in August was a shock. The Russians had known and had been receiving information that scientists in the United States were working on the bomb, but until he read reports of what had happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki Stalin had not appreciated the power of the new weapon. He immediately authorized a major effort to build the bomb; unless the Soviets tested their own weapon, he believed, they remained subject to intimidation by the United States. The Soviet bomb was tested successfully in August 1949. Finally, as the disagreements mounted between Russia and the West—quarrels over the disposition of postwar Germany, reparations or loans or aid due the Soviet Union, and the future of atomic weapons— the United States and Great Britain seemed to conspire against the Russians. The rhetoric on both sides intensified; the Cold War had begun.
To statesmen in the West, Stalin's culpability seemed obvious. He had clamped down ruthlessly in eastern Europe, suppressing freedom throughout the region, most outrageously in Czechoslovakia in early 1948. He stripped Soviet occupation zones of their factories, refused to bargain reasonably over German reunification, and in 1948 blockaded Berlin. He reestablished the Cominform to coordinate the menacing activities of communist parties everywhere. It looked different to Stalin. He wished only for security, prosperity, and noninterference by other nations in Russia's affairs. Just five years after defeating Germany, the Soviet Union was threatened with encirclement once more.
The emergent Cold War was not confined to Europe. In China a long-simmering civil war between the Nationalist forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the communist peasant army of Mao Zedong came to a full boil following Japan's surrender. Stalin did not at first embrace Mao's revolutionary quest and doubted the efficacy of Mao's movement; however, Mao was able to establish the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949. Stalin hoped to preserve Soviet influence in China, which the 1945 treaty provided, and could not afford to subsidize the People's Republic to the extent that Mao would have liked. Strains developed between the two men: Stalin was suspicious of Mao's plans, while Mao resented what he considered to be his second-class treatment in Moscow. While the two men agreed on a treaty of friendship in mid-February 1950, the differences between the communist leaders remained.
The most strenuous test of the new Sino-Soviet relationship, and the most dangerous flare-up of the Cold War to that point, was the Korean War. The North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, visited Stalin at least twice, in April 1949 and March 1950, and corresponded with him at other times. Stalin at first splashed cold water on Kim's assertion that he could reunite Korea by military means. Stalin worried, as ever, that the United States would intervene, thus threatening Soviet security. By the early spring of 1950, though, Stalin had come around. Assured by Kim that his forces were far superior to those in the south, that the Americans were unlikely to act, and that there were 200,000 communists in South Korea who would rise up in support of the North Korean invaders, Stalin went along with Kim's plan to attack. Stalin offered increased military aid and some military advisers. At the same time, he urged Kim to ask Mao for help.
The Truman administration's decision to intervene in the Korean War, buttressed by the United Nations Security Council (from which the Soviet representative was conveniently absent), confirmed Stalin's worst fears. It was a measure of his reluctance to venture too deeply into conflicts with the United States, even those in places close to Russia's border, that he would not commit Soviet troops to the fray. He did nudge the Chinese forward, promising aid and support to Chinese brave enough to go to war, but the aid came stintingly, and Soviet air cover appeared over Korean airspace a full month after the first Chinese soldiers crossed the Yalu River into North Korea. Stalin, who had worried about a U.S.–China rapprochement, was not unhappy to see Americans and Chinese killing each other.
The Korean War became a bloody stalemate in 1951, and by then Stalin's health was failing. He continued to rule with an iron hand, arresting those of whom he contrived any reason to be suspicious, reducing more and more the size of the trusted circle around him. But his body had weakened, and his thinking was no longer clear. He had a brain hemorrhage on the night of 28 February–1 March 1953, though he managed to remain alive for another four days. Just as he died, according to his daughter, "he suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something up above and bringing down a curse on us all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace." It was a fitting end for a man who had brought so much suffering to Russian citizens, while nevertheless making the Soviet Union a nation to be respected, or feared, throughout the world.