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History Makers: Joseph Stalin

The charming cobbler’s son from Georgia became one of the most powerful, feared and ruthless men of the 20th century. Adam Rees looks at the life of one of history’s most terrible tyrants…
STALIN IS OUR BANNER! The famous image of Stalin in military uniform adorned posters and banners across the USSR as he built an all-powerful, god-like persona


The dust was settling in the aftermath of World War II. Adolf Hitler was dead, but, just as Europe was celebrating the demise of one monstrous foe, another enemy was preparing to rise from within the Allies’ own ranks. This dictator would soak eastern Europe in blood and destruction, and prove himself to be just as formidable an opponent as Hitler. He was the Premier of the Soviet Union and leader of the Communist Bolshevik Party, Joseph Stalin, whose people worshipped him as a terrible, all-powerful god.

The future idol was born Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili on 6 December 1878, in the small town of Gori, Georgia, with two of the toes on his left foot joined together. He originally trained to be a priest, however he discovered atheism and Marxism at an early age, quit his pursuit of priesthood and joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party at the age of 20. He adopted the alias Koba, and took up the revolutionary manifesto of Communism with verve, which led to his banishment to Siberia in 1902 – the first of six stints in exile – and raising money for the cause by robbing banks.


By 1913, Koba began to refer to himself as Stalin, meaning ‘Man of Steel’. He was among the leading members of the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, which seized power in Petrograd in 1917, following the power vacuum left after the abdication of the Tsar. Behind the supreme leadership of Lenin and firebrand revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the mustachioed, shaggy-haired Stalin came into his own. His organisational and practical skills aided the Bolsheviks’ fight for survival after the end of Russia’s disastrous involvement in World War I. The party then came under attack from all manner of enemies during a civil war that would last until 1922. Throughout this time Stalin was put in charge of Tsaritsyn, a city in the Lower Volga region, looking after the vital supplies of food and oil from southern Russia needed to feed the population and, above all, the Bolshevik military, aka the Red Army. Instructed to hold the city at all costs, Stalin ruthlessly executed anyone he distrusted, including military leaders who were key to the city’s defence. Despite making the situation worse, Lenin admired this merciless desire to defend Bolshevism, and made Stalin General Secretary of the party in 1922.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

The Roman occupation of Britain changed the course of our history – building cities, roads and great walls, pacifying tribes and creating a unified economy. But how and why did they come to invade, and why did their mission ultimately fail? PLUS The Black Death: The terror of medieval Europe Stalin: the brutal regime of Britain’s WWII ally Prohibition: when America was dying for a drink Coco Chanel: the ultimate rags to riches story The 10 wealthiest people ever The King and Mrs Simpson: Edward VIII’s abdication The Wright Brothers Boston Tea Party The Cold War Death on the Lusitania And much, much more!