Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union - a collection of countries under Russian control - from fifteen years before the Second World War until almost a decade after it. His political party was the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a far-left party, by contrast to Adolf Hitler's far-right Nazi Party. He is one of the most controversial figures of the twentieth century, viewed by many as a mass murderer, but as a hero by others, especially in Russia, even today.
Stalin was not Stalin's real name: when he was born, his surname was Jughashvili, and he was known by that name as a young man, as well as by several other names he used when he was in hiding from the authorities. He was not Russian either, but was born in Georgia, which later became part of the Soviet Union.
Joseph Stalin, or less memorably, Ioseb dze Jughashvili!
As a boy, he was extremely clever but perpetually in trouble. When he was 16, someone thought it was a good idea to send him to a seminary to train as a priest! Once again, he got brilliant marks in his studies, but he was now becoming more and more politically active. After he left the seminary at the age of 21, he was involved in a lot of political disruption and crime, including kidnappings and bank robberies. In 1902, he was arrested and sent to prison, before being exiled (sent away as a punishment) to Siberia for three years. This was the first of at least five times he was arrested and exiled. He was supposed to serve several years in exile each time, yet he escaped from every exile except the last, when he was sentenced in 1913 to four years in a particularly remote place from which it was hard to escape.
By now, the man born as Jughashvili had adopted the name Stalin, from the Russian word stal, meaning 'steel', making him 'Man of Steel'. He was also a Bolshevik, which is a branch of communism. He worked more and more with Vladimir Lenin, who seized power in Russia during the October Revolution of 1917, overthrowing the Russian Tsar Nicholas II. The Tsar was executed with his family, and Lenin formed a new government which included Stalin as one of the most important figures.
When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin became the leader of the Soviet Union. He made himself extremely powerful by use of violence and intimidation tactics, assisted by the secret police. People who opposed Stalin were arrested and exiled; the Red Army suppressed peasant uprisings all around the Soviet Union.; and between 1936 and 1938, Stalin's Great Purge saw over a million people imprisoned, at least 700,000 people executed, and many more tortured, just because Stalin suspected them of disagreeing with him.
With World War Two coming, Stalin decided to make an agreement with Adolf Hitler: in August 1939, the Russian and German foreign ministers signed a non-aggression pact, promising that the Soviet Union and Germany would not fight each other. This astonished many people in Britain, because Hitler hated communism. He had banned the communist party in Germany, and had arranged for prominent communists to be arrested and even killed. Russia had also fought on the same side as Britain in the First World War, against Germany, so it was assumed the Soviet Union would be on the same side as Britain again.
Stalin with Joachim von Ribbentrop, Germany's foreign minister, © Bundesarchiv
Attacking the Soviet Union was probably Hitler's biggest tactical mistake - the Soviet Union was a huge territory, able to produce large armies used to much worse winter weather than the German armies. By January 1942, the German armies couldn't push forward any more, but having started attacking, Hitler was left having to fight a war on two fronts - against the Soviet Union in the East, and against the British, now helped by the Americans, in the West.
In 1945, the Allied forces, including the Soviet Union, defeated Germany. Parts of the Soviet Union had been destroyed, however, and it is estimated that 27 million people died there as a result of the war. After the war, from 1946-1947, there was a famine, and another million or more people died of starvation. This was the second terrible famine under Stalin's leadership. Nonetheless, Stalin held on to power, though he was more and more unwell.
He died in 1953 of a cerebral haemorrhage (bleeding in the brain). This might have been natural, or it might have been murder. In fact, his former chief of the secret police, an extremely nasty man called Lavrentiy Beria, claimed he murdered Stalin. That might make sense - he was one of the people who seized power after Stalin's death, and he wanted to frighten people into not opposing him. Whether or not his claim was true though, we'll never know. There hasn't ever been any clear evidence and Beria was himself arrested and executed a few months later.
Stalin may have realised the pact would not last, but it seems he was still surprised when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. He changed sides in the war, to join Britain and France, and marshalled his armies to fight the advancing Germans.