The rise of Stalin

rise of stalin
Stalin (right) seated next to his predecessor as Soviet leader, Lenin

Today, we know Joseph Stalin as a ruthless dictator who ruled the Soviet Union from the late 1920s until his death in 1953. In the first years of the Bolshevik regime, however, few thought of Stalin as a potential leader. The rise of Stalin was as clever and manipulative as it was unexpected.

Stalin’s background

The contrasts between Stalin and his predecessor, Vladimir Lenin, were significant. Lenin was a product of the middle-class. He was well-educated, an intellectual who worked extensively, spoke fluently and wrote enormous volumes.

Stalin, in contrast, was a crude Georgian of peasant stock. He was short but physically strong, his face scarred by a bout of childhood smallpox. He spoke bluntly, often coarsely and could be dominating or overbearing.

Though a good student in his youth, Stalin was not an articulate speech maker and was not particularly worldly (according to one contemporary, for many years Stalin believed Holland and the Netherlands were different countries).

Attitudes and values

In his youth, Stalin trained for the priesthood. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he had a chauvinistic disregard for women and a strong racial hatred of Russia’s Jews. This anti-Semitism, combined with competition for position in the Bolshevik party, contributed to Stalin’s intense dislike for Leon Trotsky (the pair loathed each other from their first meeting).

Stalin was a minor player in the Bolsheviks until the 1920s. Prior to World War I, he organised and conducted robberies to fund the party’s activities. He orchestrated and supervised a 1907 bank robbery in Tiflis that killed 40 people and netted the Bolsheviks more than 340,000 rubles.

Prior to 1917, Stalin was also involved in inciting strikes and protests, gang violence, running protection rackets and possibly arson and sabotage attacks on government buildings.

February Revolution

At the time of the February Revolution, Stalin was co-editor of Pravdaand one of the higher-ranking Bolsheviks in Russia (though only by default, since a dozen other higher-ranked Bolsheviks were in exile.

Stalin’s initial response was to write and publish articles that called on the Bolsheviks to support for the Provisional Government. He maintained this position until the return of Lenin in April 1917.

Through the course of 1917, Stalin’s position within the party began to rise, chiefly because of his work for Lenin. He assisted Lenin’s flight to Finland after the failed July Days uprising and for a time served as the nominal Bolshevik leader within Russia. Stalin earned Lenin’s trust by carrying out instructions reliably, effectively and discretely.

General secretary

In 1922, Stalin was appointed as the party’s general secretary. This was a seemingly minor position but one that allowed him to oversee and manipulate party appointments.

Stalin used this office to build personal support. He filled the Orgburo and key leadership positions with friends and acolytes, while working behind the scenes to forge alliances within the Politburo itself.

Lenin, by now desperately unwell, effectively housebound and participating less in government, became suspicious of Stalin. The Bolshevik leader became critical of Stalin’s personal qualities (a view famously expressed in his political testament). Aware of Lenin’s high position in the party, Stalin publicly affirmed his obedience and loyalty, while working behind the scenes to isolate the Bolshevik leader.

Assumption of power

In mid-1922, Stalin formed a troika (three-person leadership group) with fellow Bolsheviks Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. One of the functions of the troika was to marginalise Stalin’s arch-rival, Trotsky.

On Lenin’s death, Stalin took a leading role at public commemorations, organised Lenin’s funeral and ordered his body be embalmed and placed on public display (against Lenin’s personal wishes).

By 1925, Stalin had acquired enough power to dissolve the troika and move against Kamenev and Zinoviev. Both formed an opposition against Stalin and his supporters but were

Brutal leadership

The rise of Stalin ushered in the bloodiest period in Russia’s history. The Georgian dictator ruled the Soviet Union for more than 25 years, a period marked by war, class war, rapid industrialisation, the collectivisation of farms and deadly famines. These events led to the death of as many as 20 million people.

Stalin’s rule is widely known for its political repression, its purges of potential rivals and brutal treatment of civilians. Stalin was notoriously paranoid and thousands suspected of threatening his power were eliminated. People, groups, even entire populations that stood in the way of his economic program were targeted.

Whether Stalin and his brutality were deviations from Lenin’s example, or continuations of it, is a hotly disputed question among historians of Russia.

Citation information
Title: “The rise of Stalin”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 30, 2019
Date accessed: June 27, 2022
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