4 minute read

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union and the Communist party from 1929 to 1953. He used ruthless methods to consolidate his power and ruled the Soviet Union by terror. His actions shaped the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, leading to the COLD WAR after WORLD WAR II.

Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on December 21, 1879, in Gori, now in the Republic of Georgia. He adopted the name Stalin, meaning "man of steel," in 1910. The son of peasants, his academic prowess led to a scholarship at a theological seminary. While studying for the priesthood, he began reading the works of KARL MARX. He soon left the seminary and joined the Social-Democratic party in 1899. His revolutionary activities led to his arrest and exile to Siberia seven times between 1902 and 1913. He escaped six times.

He aligned himself with the Bolshevik faction of the party, which was under the leadership of VLADIMIR ILYICH LENIN. Lenin named Stalin to the Bolshevik's Central Committee in 1912 and in 1913 named him editor of the party newspaper, Pravda. He spent from 1913 until early 1917 in Siberian exile, returning to St. Petersburg to aid the Bolsheviks in overthrowing first the monarchy and then the provisional government. The November 1917 Bolshevik revolution put Lenin in charge. Stalin became a top aide to Lenin and helped the regime in winning a civil war against those who opposed the Bolsheviks.

In the early 1920s, Stalin began plotting to gain power. Before Lenin died in 1924, he expressed misgivings about Stalin's use of power. Nevertheless, Stalin joined in a three-man leadership group, called a troika, to govern the Soviet Union after Lenin's death. He quickly pushed aside all his rivals, including Leon Trot-sky, and became the supreme ruler by 1929.

During the 1930s Stalin collectivized all private farms in the Soviet Union and in the process sent a million farmers into exile. He embarked on a process of "russification," which put minority nationalities under strict control of the national government. In 1939, in concert with the Nazi government of ADOLF HITLER, Stalin invaded eastern Poland. In 1940 he conquered the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Stalin also encouraged the growth of COMMUNISM throughout the world. The Communist party of the United States grew rapidly during the Great Depression of the 1930s, in the process raising questions whether the party was a mere tool of Stalin and the international Communist movement. As a result of concerns about Communist subversion, Congress enacted the SMITH ACT (54 Stat. 670) in 1940. The legislation required ALIENS to register and be fingerprinted by the federal government. More importantly, the act made it illegal not only to conspire to overthrow the government but to advocate or conspire to advocate its overthrow. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 71 S. Ct. 857, 95 L. Ed. 1137 (1951).

Stalin's 1939 nonaggression pact with Hitler proved futile: Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Stalin then aligned the Soviet Union with the United States and Great Britain in World War II. When the war in Europe ended in 1945, the Soviet Army occupied Eastern Europe and a large part of Germany. Stalin ignored agreements between the Allies and proceeded to impose Communist rule on these occupied countries.

The United States and Great Britain perceived Stalin's actions as attempts to force Communism on the world. In the late 1940s, the Soviet Union was captioned by the United States as the Red Menace, seeking to subvert democracy and capitalism. Stalin pushed the United States to the brink of a third world war when he ordered the blockade of Berlin in 1948 and 1949.

Fears about Communism were further stirred by the arrest of JULIUS AND ETHEL ROSENBERG in 1950 for providing the Soviet Union with secrets about the atomic bomb. To many people, the Rosenbergs were tools of Stalin and the Communist conspiracy. Other people, however, saw them as victims of political hysteria. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953, yet several generations of historians have argued over their guilt or innocence.

Stalin's hard-line policies were met in kind by the West. In 1949 the United States created the NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY ORGANIZATION, which committed U.S. forces to the defense of Europe. The outbreak of the KOREAN WAR in 1950, which was started by Communists in North Korea, led to the deployment of U.S. troops to stave off Communist aggression. Stalin's determination to expand Soviet power and influence created the climate for the Cold War. The United States practiced a policy of

Joseph Stalin expanded the influence of the Soviet Union following World War II by refusing to withdraw Soviet forces from much of Germany and Eastern Europe.

containment, with the goal of preventing the spread of Communism.

In his later years, Stalin literally rewrote the Soviet history books, turning himself into a heroic, godlike figure. Those who opposed him were exiled to Siberian labor camps or executed. Always suspicious of those around him, in 1953 he prepared to purge more party leaders. His plans were cut short, however, when he suffered a brain hemorrhage and died on March 5, 1953, in Moscow.

Stalin's methods were replicated by later Soviet leaders. The demise of European Communist regimes in the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s signaled an end to Stalinism.


Gorlizki, Yoram, and Oleg Khlevniuk. 2003. Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945-1953. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Lee, Stephen J. 1999. Stalin and the Soviet Union. New York: Routledge.

Mawdsley, Evan. 2003. The Stalin Years: The Soviet Union 1929–1953. Manchester, N.Y.: Manchester Univ. Press.


Communism; Red Scare.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Special power to Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation