Rise of Joseph Stalin

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Joseph Stalin was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee from 1923 until his death in 1953. In the years following Lenin's death in 1924, he rose to become the leader of the Soviet Union.

After growing up in Georgia, Stalin conducted activities for the Bolshevik party for twelve years before the Russian Revolution of 1917. After participating, Stalin took military leadership positions in the Russian Civil War and Soviet-Polish War. Stalin was one of the Bolsheviks' chief operatives in the Caucasus and grew very close to Lenin, who saw him as a capable and loyal follower. Stalin played a decisive role in engineering the 1921 Red Army invasion of Georgia, adopting a particularly hardline approach to opposition. His connections helped him attain high positions in the new Soviet government, eventually becoming General Secretary in 1922. Lenin grew critical of Stalin, and many other Bolsheviks at this time, but in 1922 a stroke forced Lenin into semi-retirement. Lenin recommended Stalin's dismissal. However, after Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin suppressed documentation of Lenin's recommendation. Thereafter, Stalin politically isolated his major enemies, such as arch-rival Leon Trotsky, and had them dismissed from government altogether. This eventually led him to be the sole uncontested leader of the Party and the Soviet Union.


For over a decade before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Stalin was one of the chief Bolshevik operatives in the Caucasus, organising cells, spreading propaganda, and raising money through criminal activities. He eventually earned a place in Lenin's inner circle and the highest echelons of the Bolshevik hierarchy. In 1917, he participated in the Bolshevik uprising in the Russian capital of Petrograd. His pseudonym, Stalin, means "man of steel".

In the civil war that followed, Stalin forged connections with various Red Army generals and eventually acquired military powers of his own. He brutally suppressed counter-revolutionaries and bandits. After winning the civil war, the Bolsheviks moved to expand the revolution into Europe, starting with Poland, which was fighting the Red Army in Ukraine. As joint commander of an army in Ukraine, Stalin's actions in the war were later criticized by many, including Leon Trotsky.

General Secretary and invasion of Georgia

In late 1920, Trotsky argued for a ban on trade unions and a formal imposition of Party dictatorship over the industrial sectors. Fearing a backlash from the unions, Lenin asked Stalin to build a support base for him against Trotsky.[1] Lenin's faction eventually prevailed at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921. Frustrated by the squabbling factions within the Party during what he saw as a time of crisis, Lenin convinced the Tenth Congress to pass a ban on any opposition to official Central Committee policy (the Ban on Factions, a law which Stalin would later exploit to expel his enemies). Lenin still, however, encountered difficulties pushing his policies through and decided to give his reliable ally, Stalin, more power.[2] With the help of Kamenev, Lenin successfully had Stalin appointed to the post of General Secretary on April 3, 1922. Stalin still held his posts in the Orgburo, the Workers' and Peasants' Inspectorate and the Commassariat for Nationalities Affairs, though he agreed to delegate his workload to subordinates. With this power, he would steadily place his supporters in positions of authority.[2]

Stalin played a decisive role in engineering the 1921 Red Army invasion of Georgia following which he adopted particularly hardline, centralist policies towards Soviet Georgia, which included severe repression of all opposition within the local Communist party (e.g., the Georgian Affair of 1922), not to mention any manifestations of anti-Sovietism (the August Uprising of 1924).[3] It was in the Georgian affairs that Stalin first began to play his own hand.[4] Lenin, however, disliked Stalin's policy towards Georgia, as he believed all the Soviet states should be on equal standing with Russia rather than be absorbed and subordinated to it.[2]

Lenin's retirement and death

Stalin visiting the ailing Lenin at his dacha in Gorki.

On May 25, 1922, Lenin suffered a stroke while recovering from surgery to remove a bullet lodged in his neck since a failed assassination attempt in August 1918. Severely debilitated, he went into semi-retirement and moved to his dacha in Gorki. After this, Trotsky and Stalin were concerned about who was going to be the next successor. Trotsky and Lenin had more of a personal relationship and Lenin and Stalin had more of a political relationship. Yet, Stalin visited him often, acting as his intermediary with the outside world.[2] During this time, the two quarrelled over economic policy and how to consolidate the Soviet republics. Lenin and Stalin were agreeing on more political ideas than disagreeing, which was creating a closer relationship. One day, Stalin verbally swore at Lenin's wife for breaching Politburo orders by helping Lenin communicate with Trotsky and others about politics;[2] this greatly offended Lenin. As their relationship deteriorated, Lenin dictated increasingly disparaging notes on Stalin in what would become his testament. Trotsky criticised Stalin's rude manners, excessive power, ambition and politics, and suggested that Stalin should be removed from the position of General Secretary to Lenin. One of Lenin's secretaries showed Stalin the notes, whose contents shocked him.[2] Before Stalin could mend any bridges, Lenin suffered a heart attack on March 10, 1923 which left him completely incapacitated.

During Lenin's semi-retirement, Stalin forged an alliance with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev against Trotsky. These allies prevented Lenin's Testament from being revealed to the Twelfth Party Congress in April 1923.[2] Although they too were disconcerted by Stalin's power and some of his policies, they needed his help in opposing Trotsky's faction and his possible succession to Lenin in a power struggle.

Lenin died of a stroke on January 21, 1924. Stalin was given the honour of organising his funeral. Upon Lenin's death, Stalin was officially hailed as his successor as the leader of the ruling Communist Party and of the Soviet Union itself. Against Lenin's wishes, he was given a lavish funeral and his body was embalmed and put on display. Thanks to Kamenev and Zinoviev's influence, the Central Committee decided that Lenin's Testament should not be made public. At the Thirteenth Party Congress in May, it was read out only to the heads of the provincial delegations. Trotsky did not want to appear divisive so soon after Lenin's death and did not seize the opportunity to demand Stalin's removal.[5]

Downfall of Trotsky

In the months following Lenin's death, Stalin's disputes with Kamenev and Zinoviev intensified. These two Bolsheviks did not regard Stalin highly, and often disparaged him in private even as they had aided him publicly. Stalin allied himself now with Nikolai Bukharin, whom he had promoted to the Politburo at the Thirteenth Party Congress. At the Fourteenth Party Congress in December 1925, Stalin openly attacked Kamenev and Zinoviev, revealing that they had asked for his aid in expelling Trotsky from the Party.

Stalin began advocating "Socialism in One Country," which says that the Bolsheviks should focus building communism in the countries they already controlled rather than spreading the revolution. This drew to him many like-minded Party members but put him in ideological opposition to Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev. Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev formed a United Opposition against Stalin, demanding greater freedom of expression and a repeal of Lenin's 1921 Ban on Factions. They did this by appealing to the masses by using public demonstrations, which was a fatal mistake as Stalin could then use Lenin's policy on Factionalism against them and this further enhanced the view that Stalin was the rightful heir to Lenin. Stalin eventually defeated this opposition and forced Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev to sign a letter of submission to him.[6]

Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev grew increasingly isolated and were ejected from the Central Committee in October 1927. On November 14, Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the Party itself, followed by Kamenev at the Fifteenth Party Congress in December.[2] Kamenev and Zinoviev were re-admitted some six months later after writing open letters of apology to Stalin, however they were given lower positions and never made members of the Politburo again. However Trotsky refused to apologize and therefore was not allowed to join the Party again. Trotsky lived in exile in Alma-ata for a while, and was finally exiled from the Soviet Union itself in January 1929.

Dominating the Politburo

Stalin began pushing for more rapid industrialisation and central control of the economy, a position which resonated with many Party members who disliked Lenin's New Economic Policy.[7] At the end of 1927, a critical shortfall in grain supplies prompted Stalin to push for collectivisation of agriculture. In January 1928, he personally travelled to Siberia where he oversaw the seizure of grain hoards from kulak farmers. Many in the Party supported the seizures, but Bukharin and Premier Rykov were outraged.[2][8] Bukharin criticized Stalin's plans for rapid industrialization financed by kulak wealth, and advocated a return to Lenin's NEP.[9] However, he was unable to rally sufficient support from the higher levels of the Party to oppose Stalin.[10] Stalin accused Bukharin of factionalism (banned by Lenin since 1921) and capitalist tendencies. The other Politburo members sided with Stalin, and labelled Bukharin a "Right Deviationist" from Marxist–Leninist principles.[11] Bukharin was ejected from the Politburo in November 1929.

Stalin birthday in 1929. Left to right: Mikhail Kalinin, Lazar Kaganovich, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov (obscured), Sergei Kirov.

Stalin's agricultural policies were also criticized by fellow Politburo member Mikhail Kalinin. In the summer of 1930, Stalin exposed Kalinin's embezzlement of state funds, which he spent on a mistress. Kalinin begged forgiveness and effectively submitted himself to Stalin.[12] In September 1930, Stalin proposed dismissing Premier Rykov, who was Bukharin's fellow oppositionist. The other Politburo members agreed with Stalin, and supported his nomination of Vyacheslav Molotov. On December 19, the Central Committee dismissed Rykov and replaced him with Molotov.[13]

By the 1930s, open criticism of Stalin within the Party was virtually non-existent, though Stalin continued to hunt for discreet dissenters.[14] Stalin dominated the Politburo (the executive branch of the Soviet government) through staunch allies such as Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Lazar Kaganovich, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Kliment Voroshilov.

Death of his wife

On the night of November 9, 1932, Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, shot herself in her bedroom. Stalin was sleeping in another room that night,[15] so her death was not discovered until the next morning. To prevent a scandal, Pravda reported the cause of death as appendicitis. Stalin did not tell his own children the truth to prevent them from spreading the truth accidentally.

The Great Terror

On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov was murdered by Leonid Nikolaev. The death of this popular, high-profile politician shocked Russia, and Stalin used this murder to begin The Great Terror. Within hours of Kirov's death, Stalin declared Grigory Zinoviev and his supporters to be responsible for Kirov's murder.[16] Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev were arrested and, to escape long prison sentences, confessed to political and moral responsibility for Kirov's murder. They were sentenced to five and ten years respectively. Stalin sanctioned the formation of troikas for the purpose of extrajudicial punishment.[17] Hundreds of oppositionists linked to Kamenev and Zinoviev were arrested and exiled to Siberia.[18][19] In late 1935, Stalin reopened the case. Kamenev and Zinoviev were interrogated again, and Trotsky was now implicated in Kirov's murder.[20] In July 1936, Stalin personally promised to Kamenev and Zinoviev that there would be no executions or persecution of their families if they confessed to conspiring with Trotsky.[21] This promise was broken. After a show trial, Kamenev and Zinoviev were executed that August.

Spearheading Stalin's campaign was a Commissar called Nikolai Yezhov, a fervent Stalinist and a believer in violent repression.[22] Nikolai Yezhov continued to expand the lists of suspects to include all the old oppositionists as well as entire nationalities, such as the Poles.[23]

Stalin distrusted the Soviet secret police - the NKVD - which was filled with Old Bolsheviks and ethnicities he distrusted, such as Poles, Jews and Latvians.[24] In September 1936, Stalin fired the head of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, and replaced him with the more aggressive and zealous Yezhov.

Since his falling out with Stalin in the late 1920s, Bukharin wrote an endless stream of letters of repentance and admiration to Stalin. However, Stalin knew Bukharin's repentance was insincere, as in private Bukharin continued to court Stalin's opponents (the NKVD wiretapped Bukharin's telephone). Kamenev and Zinoviev had denounced him as a traitor during their trial. At the December 1936 plenum of the Central Committee, Yezhov accused Bukharin and Alexey Rykov of treachery. In March 1938, Bukharin was coerced into confessing to conspiring against Stalin, and later executed.

Stalin eventually turned on Yezhov. He appointed Yezhov Commissar of Water Transport in April 1938 (a similar thing had happened to Yezhov's predecessor shortly before he was fired). Stalin began ordering the executions of Yezhov's protégés in the NKVD.[25] Politburo members also started to openly condemn the excesses of the NKVD.[26] Yezhov eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and resigned as NKVD chief on November 23. He was replaced by Lavrentiy Beria.[27]


  1. Service 2003, p. 186
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Robert Service. Stalin: A Biography. 2004. ISBN 978-0-330-41913-0[page needed]
  3. Knight, Ami W. (1991), Beria and the Cult of Stalin: Rewriting Transcaucasian Party History. Soviet Studies, Vol. 43, No. 4, pp. 749–763.
  4. Shanin, Teodor (July 1989), Ethnicity in the Soviet Union: Analytical Perceptions and Political Strategies. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 409–424.
  5. Service 2003, p. 223
  6. RUSSIA: Humble Pie, TIME Magazine, October 25, 1926
  7. Service 2004, p. 258, ch. 23
  8. Simon Sebag Montefiore. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Knopf, 2004 (ISBN 1-4000-4230-5).[page needed]
  9. Service 2004, p. 259, ch. 23
  10. Service 2004, p. 260, ch. 23
  11. Service 2004, p. 265
  12. Montefiore 2003, p. 60
  13. Montefiore 2003, p. 64
  14. Service 2004, p. 284
  15. Service 2004, p. 292
  16. Montefiore 2003, p. 160
  17. Service 2004, p. 315
  18. Service 2004, p. 316
  19. Montefiore 2003, p. 167
  20. Montefiore 2003, p. 188
  21. Montefiore 2003, p. 193
  22. Lucas, Dean (2012-09-03). "Famous Pictures Magazine - Altered Images". Famous Picture. Retrieved 2012-10-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Montefiore 2003, p. 204
  24. Montefiore 2003, p. 205
  25. Montefiore 2003, p. 280
  26. Service 2004, p. 369
  27. Service 2004, p. 368