Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, born in December 1878 in Georgia, assumed the name Stalin (man of steel) in his 30s. Growing up the poor, only child of a shoemaker and laundress, he attended a Georgian Orthodox seminary as a young man. Inspired by the works of Karl Marx, he became a political organizer for the Bolshevik Party. Arrested multiple times, he was imprisoned and exiled to Siberia.
In 1903 Stalin married the seamstress Ekaterina “Kato” Svanidze and had a son Yakov. Ekaterina died of typhus in 1907. Yakov died as a POW in WWII Germany. Stalin married his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva in 1919, and had two children: Vasily, who was imprisoned after his father’s death in 1953 and Svetlana, who defected in the 1960s. Their mother Nadezhda committed suicide in 1932. Stalin reportedly also fathered several children out of wedlock.
When the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, Stalin gained control of the party. Assuming dictatorial powers, he instituted a farm collectivization program, suppressed opposition and purged his party of potential rivals. Many of his perceived enemies were executed or sent to forced labor camps.
In 1929, Stalin launched a disastrous series of five-year plans to industrialize the agrarian Russian economy. As the government seized control of farms, peasant farmers who refused to cooperate were shot or exiled. The forced collectivization also led to widespread famine across the Soviet Union that killed millions.
Stalin expanded the powers of the secret police, encouraged citizens to spy on one another and had millions of people killed or sent to the Gulag system of forced labor camps. From 1937-38, he instituted the Great Terror, a series of arrests, executions and exiles designed to remove people from the Communist Party, the military and Soviet society that he considered a threat.
Controlling the Soviet media, Stalin promoted a cult of personality for himself. Cities were renamed in his honor, history books augmented his role in the revolution, and artwork, literature and music extolled his name.
In 1939, Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. He then proceeded to annex parts of Poland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and launch an invasion of Finland. However, in June 1941 Hitler broke the pact and invaded the USSR with Operation Barbarossa. As German troops advanced toward Moscow, Stalin ordered a scorched earth policy to destroy anything that might benefit the enemy. In 1942, the tide on the Eastern Front turned with the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Red Army eventually drove the invading Germans from Russia.
In 1945, Stalin’s health deteriorated and heart problems forced a two-month vacation. He grew increasingly concerned about possible attempts to oust him from power. Senior political and military figures were monitored by secret police and many (including Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and NKVD head Lavrentiy Beria) were eventually demoted from positions of power.
After WWII, many Russians viewed Stalin as a hero and savior of the nation. Post-war Soviet society became somewhat more tolerant: The Russian Orthodox Church was allowed to retain churches opened during the war. Academia and the arts were allowed greater freedom. Nevertheless, distrust still pervaded Stalin’s psyche. Returning Soviet POWs were interrogated for possible treason and about half were imprisoned in labor camps. In the Baltic states, where opposition to Soviet rule long lay dormant, arrests, deportations, executions and removal of clerical influence was instituted.
After prolonged drought and a bad harvest, the USSR experienced a major famine from 1946 to 1947 that was further exacerbated by government food procurement policies. An estimated 1-1.5 million died from malnutrition or disease. Despite the famine, Stalin remained focused on major infrastructure projects that (utilizing prison labor) built hydroelectric plants, canals and railway lines.