Joseph Stalin, born on December 18, 1878, in the city of Gori, Georgia, played a pivotal role in shaping the course of Soviet history. Known by the moniker “man of steel,” Stalin’s early life was marked by adversity and hardship. At the age of 7, he contracted smallpox, leaving permanent scars on his face, and at 10, he survived two carriage accidents that permanently disabled his left arm. His parents’ tumultuous relationship and his father’s subsequent abandonment further compounded the challenges of his upbringing.
Stalin’s journey took a turn when, at 16, he gained admission to the Georgian Orthodox Seminary in Tiflis. However, his expulsion in 1899 for challenging authority set the stage for his revolutionary inclinations. Influenced by the writings of Lenin and Marx, Stalin delved into socialist ideals and joined the Russian Social Democrat Labor Party in Tbilisi. His path towards radicalism solidified, and he became a key figure in the Caucasus, organizing strikes and participating in illegal activities.
In 1922, Stalin rose to prominence, assuming the role of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death. His consolidation of power led to the exile of Trotsky in 1927 and the initiation of a massive industrialization effort with the construction of 9000 factories. In 1939, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, setting the stage for a complex geopolitical landscape.
The onset of World War II marked a critical period for Stalin and the Soviet Union. In 1941, Nazi Germany declared war on the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Despite initial setbacks, the Soviets successfully defended key cities, notably Moscow and Stalingrad. The tide turned in 1942, with the Soviet army defeating the Germans in the Battle of Stalingrad.
However, the post-war era under Stalin’s leadership witnessed atrocities and human suffering. Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler in 1939, only to face the devastating consequences of Operation Barbarossa in 1941. In a misguided attempt to impede German occupation, Stalin ordered the burning of settlements, causing harm to his own people.
The post-war period also saw Stalin’s brutal policies towards certain ethnic groups. In 1944, he accused 400,000 Crimean Tatars of collaboration with Germans, leading to their deportation to Siberia and the deaths of at least 191,044 individuals. The Ahiska Turks faced a similar fate in 1944, with 86,000 being deported to Kyrgyzstan, resulting in the loss of 17,000 lives.
Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, marked the end of an era, but not without leaving a legacy of suffering. His paranoia and dictatorial rule resulted in approximately 20 million deaths in labor camps due to forced collectivization, famine, and extrajudicial killings. Despite Stalin’s aspirations to be a great leader, his successor, Khrushchev, denounced him as an enemy after his death, underscoring the complexity of Stalin’s impact on the Soviet Union and its people.
(This article was written also with the contributions of Yusuf Bera SARIHAN)