Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (Dzhugashvili) was a Bolshevik revolutionary, the second leader of the Soviet Union, and leader of world Communism. He was also known as Koba (a Georgian folk hero) to his closest confidantes. The name “Stalin” (derived from combining Russian stal, “steel” with “Lenin”) originally was a conspirative nickname; however, it stuck to him and he continued to call himself Stalin after the Russian Revolution. Stalin is also reported to have used at least a dozen other names for the purpose of secret communications, but for obvious reasons most of them remain unknown.
Born in Gori, Georgia on December 18, 1878, to illiterate peasant parents (who had been serfs at birth), his harsh spirit has been blamed on undeserved and severe beatings by his father, inspiring vengeful feelings towards anyone in a position to wield power over him (perhaps also a reason he became a revolutionary). His mother set him on a path to become a priest, and he studied Russian Orthodox Christianity until he was nearly twenty.
His involvement with the socialist movement began at seminary school, from which he was expelled in 1899. From there on he worked for a decade with the political underground in the Caucasus. He soon followed Vladimir Lenin’s ideology about centralism and a strong party of “professional revolutionaries.” His practical experience made him useful in Lenin’s Bolshevik Party leading up to the 1917 October Revolution (in which he played no direct part).
Stalin spent his first years after the revolution building his post as general secretary secretly into the most powerful one in the communist party. After Lenin’s death in 1924, a triumvirate of Stalin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev governed against Leon Trotsky (on the left wing of the party) and Nikolai Bukharin (on the right wing of the party). Soon after, Stalin switched sides and joined with Bukharin. Together, they fought a new opposition of Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev. By 1928, (the first year of the Five-Year Plans) Stalin’s supremacy was complete. From this year, he could be said to have exercised control over the party and the country (although the formalities were not complete until the Great Purges of 1936-1938).
The final stage of Stalin’s rise to power was the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, where he had lived since 1936 (he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929.). Indeed, after Trotsky’s death only two members of the “Old Bolsheviks” (Lenin’s Politburo) remained - Stalin himself and his foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov.
Stalin consolidated his power base with the Great Purges against his political and ideological opponents, most notably the old cadres and the rank and file of the Bolshevik Party. Measures used against them ranged from imprisonment in work camps (Gulags) to assassination (such as that of Leon Trotsky and Sergei Kirov). Several show trials were held in Moscow, to serve as examples for the trials that local courts were expected to carry out elsewhere in the country. There were four key trials from 1936 to 1938, The Trial of the Sixteen was the first (December 1936); then the Trial of the Seventeen (January 1937); then the trial of Red Army generals, including Marshal Tukhachevsky (June 1937); and, finally, the Trial of the Twenty-One (including Bukharin) in March 1938.
Under the pretext of constructing ‘socialism in one country,’ Stalin terrorized large segments of the Soviet population, such as the Kulaks, a term for prosperous farmers who were disinherited when agriculture was collectivized. He also orchestrated a massive famine in the Ukraine in which an estimated five million people died. It is believed that with the purges, forced famines, state terrorism, labor camps, and forced migrations, Stalin was responsible for the death of as many as 40 million people within the borders of the Soviet Union.
In 1939, Stalin made the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany which divided Eastern Europe between the two powers. In 1941, Hitler broke the agreement and invaded the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). Under Stalin’s leadership, the Soviet Red Army put up fierce resistance, but were ineffective against the advancing Nazi forces.
Stalin was up to this point very wary of the Germans, and would not permit his armies to even assume defensive positions for fear of sending the wrong signals to Hitler. Up to the final moment, and the invasion by the Germans, he held out hope that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would buy him time to modernize and strengthen his military (recently weakened by purges).
The Germans reached the outskirts of Moscow in December, but were stopped by an early winter and a Soviet counter-offensive. At the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43, after sacrificing an estimated one million men, the Red Army was able to regain the initiative of the war. With military equipment supplied by their allies, the Soviet forces were able to regain their lost territory and push their over-stretched enemy back to Germany itself.
Following World War II, Stalin continued his genocidal policies while exerting ruthless control over the Soviet Union and its satellite states until his death in 1953. More than 15 million Germans were removed from eastern Germany and pushed into central Germany (later called GDR German Democratic Republic) and western Germany (later called FRG Federal Republic of Germany). Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs and others were then moved onto German land. Other ethnic groups, like the Crimean Tartars and Volga Germans, were moved to the Asian part of the Soviet Union. Millions of German POWs and Soviet ex-POWs were sent to the gulags. The eastern European states occupied by the Red Army were established as communist satellites.
Through his entire career, Stalin had to deal with the “Jewish question,” and as the autocratic ruler of the Soviet Union his policy had a profound influence on the fate of the Jewish people. At the early stages of the factional strife in the Russian Social Democratic Party, during which Stalin unreservedly joined Lenin and the Bolsheviks, he became involved in the Jewish problem through their bitter dispute with the Bund.
In 1913, with Lenin’s approval, he published an essay titled “Social Democracy and the National Question” (later renamed “Marxism and the National Question”), in which the Jews figured prominently as the subject of a theoretical analysis of ethnicity and nationhood. In this essay Stalin denied the existence of one national Jewish entity throughout the world, stressing the differences between the Jewish communities in East and West. He conceded that certain ethnic characteristics exist in each Jewish community separately, but denied the Jews any national status and adhered to Lenin’s concept of the unavoidable progressive assimilation and disappearance of the Jews under advanced capitalism (e.g., in Western Europe and in America) and certainly under Socialism.
In contrast to this view, Stalin, as commissar of nationalities in the first Soviet government (1917–23), was responsible for the policy of fostering Yiddish cultural and educational activity, Jewish administrative institutions, and agricultural settlement, and it was he who gave the formal permit to the young Hebrew theater Habimah in Moscow. In his controversy and blood feud with Trotsky, Zinovyev, Kamenev, Radek, and other members of Lenin’s old guard, hardly any anti-Jewish allusions were discernible. He did not refrain, however, from accusing his prominent Jewish victims of being agents of the Nazis and the Gestapo. Although there were Jews among the executors of the bloody purges, the upheaval of the party and government structure caused by these purges resulted in a reduction of Jewish personnel in many branches of the bureaucracy.
At the same time, a marked change occurred in Stalin’s policy toward Jewish cultural activity and to the evolution of Jewish settlement and territorial autonomy, which had culminated in the Birobidzhan project. Stalin’s trend, concurrent with the great purges, was to liquidate the Yiddish school system, Yiddish publications, research institutes, and theaters so that at the end of the 1930s only token vestiges of them remained (e.g., the State Jewish Theater in Moscow).
During his rapprochement with Nazi Germany (1939–41), he suppressed in the Soviet press and radio all mention of Nazi anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish atrocities, but himself refrained from using anti-Jewish allusions while attacking the Western “imperialist” powers. He extradited to the Nazi regime German communists who had fled to the Soviet Union, many of them Jews.
The German attack on the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941) and his adherence to the anti-Nazi alliance induced Stalin to establish the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which, for the enlistment of Western Jewish support for the Soviet war effort, was allowed to exploit the sentiments of world Jewish solidarity and “brotherhood” and even use Jewish historical and nationalist rhetoric, in full contradiction to his original ideological concept of Jewish identity. Immediately after the war, when he was presented with a plan to allow returning Jewish evacuees to settle in the Crimea, Stalin opposed it on the grounds that in the event of war a “Jewish Crimea” would constitute a security risk for the Soviet Union.
An exceptional episode in Stalin’s attitude to Jewish nationhood was his resolute and energetic support in 1947–48 for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, a policy clearly directed against Britain’s position in the Middle East and largely reversed during the explicitly anti-Semitic (and “anti-Zionist”) stance of his last years (1948–53), which coincided with the Cold War. An ominous prelude to these “black years” was the camouflaged assassination of the de facto head of Soviet Jewry Solomon Mikhoels, the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, on January 13, 1948, a crime to which Stalin was at least a passive accomplice.
From the end of 1948 until his death, Stalin displayed an extremely hostile attitude toward everything Jewish (mostly labeled “Zionist”). He embarked on a course of complete liquidation of the last Jewish institutions and personalities who engaged in Yiddish literature and culture. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the publishing house Der Emes were closed down. Mass arrests of leading Jewish writers and artists followed. Jewish intellectuals and professionals active in various fields were also arrested. Among the arrested was Molotov’s Jewish wife, whom Stalin believed to be sent by Zionists to spy on her husband. These purges were accompanied by a vituperous campaign of the Soviet press against Western-oriented “Cosmopolitans” in which Jews were the obvious target.
In mid-1952 a closed trial was held against members of the Anti-Fascist Committee and other leading personalities in Jewish cultural life, 26 of whom were secretly executed on August 12 of that year. They were accused of Jewish nationalism, of having maintained contact with Western espionage, and of having planned to detach the Crimea from the Soviet Union.
Jews were assigned a prominent role in the Slánský Trials, staged in Czechoslovakia on Stalin’s orders, and based mainly on an alleged link between Jews, Zionism, and U.S. espionage. This trial indicated Stalin’s intentions to use anti-Semitism not only in the Soviet Union, but also in the satellite countries of Eastern Europe.
Shortly before he died on March 5, 1953, Stalin accused nine doctors, six of them Jews, of plotting to poison and kill the Soviet leadership. The innocent men accused in the “Doctors’ Plot,” were arrested and, at Stalin's personal instruction, tortured to obtain confessions. Stalin died days before their trial was to begin. It is generally believed that Stalin’s death on March 5 of that year prevented a major disaster to Soviet Jews.
Stalin’s ruthlessness and secretive nature make it impossible to prove conclusively when and to what extent a personal anti-Jewish bias played its role in his policy toward individual Jews and the Jewish people. Jews were known to him from his childhood and adolescence, since both Georgian towns – Gori, his birthplace, and the capital Tbilisi, where he received his Greek-Orthodox education – had a sizable Jewish population.
A jest to which he referred in an article in 1907, in which the Bolsheviks’ rivals, the Mensheviks, were portrayed as a “Jewish” faction of the Social-Democratic Party, and the humorous allusion made to the fact that it would not have been a bad idea if the Bolsheviks staged an intraparty “pogrom” seemed to indicate a certain train of thought. On the other hand, on January 12, 1931, in an interview with a representative of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Stalin made one of the sharpest statements ever made against anti-Semitism, describing it as “the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism” and, in 1936, he allowed this statement to be published in the Soviet Union (Pravda, November 30). However, there is a series of indications of a personal anti-Jewish bias, as, for example, a remark made to General Sikorski, the head of the Polish government in exile, in 1941 (“the Jews are rotten soldiers”), and various hints and remarks he uttered in 1948 to the Yugoslav Communist Milovan Djilas, or, in his family life, his disapproval of his son Yakov’s marriage to a Jewess, his highly emotional irritation over his daughter’s romance with the Jewish film director Kapler (having him arrested and sent to a labor camp) and avoiding meeting his Jewish son-in-law.
The enthusiastic response of Soviet Jews to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 seemed to have reinforced his antagonism. He said to his daughter, Svetlana, that the entire older generation of Soviet Jews was contaminated with Zionism and that they were teaching it to their young people. Thus, it seems evident that, while consciously exploiting deep-rooted anti-Jewish suspicions of the populace for his political ends – through the anti-”Cosmopolitan” campaign, the Slánský Trials, and the Doctors’ Plot, which highlighted his nationalist, anti-Western Cold War policy – Stalin himself became more and more paranoid and disturbed in his attitude to Jews and the Jewish people.
I. Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography (1949, 19633); S.M. Schwarz, The Jews in the Soviet Union (1951); idem, Yevrei v Sovetskom Soyuze, 2 (19664); M. Djilas, Talks with Stalin (1962); S. Allilueva, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967); idem, Only One Year (1969).