Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s General Secretary from 1922 until his death in 1953. Under his leadership, the Soviet Union evolved from an economically backwards, war torn state into a unified global superpower.
Joseph Stalin, born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, was the son of a small-town Georgian cobbler. Marked even at an early age by an obsessive hatred of Tsarist Russia, the young Ioseb was thrown out of seminary school for preaching against the tsars. A short time after that, he became a convert to Vladimir Lenin’s brand of Marxism. Ioseb soon became Lenin’s chief enforcer in the Caucasian region, specializing in paramilitary warfare and bank robbery.
After several years of this mafioso phase, Ioseb was arrested by and exiled to Siberia, from which he promptly escaped. Despite being caught and exiled five more times, Ioseb was able bury his past and take a position in Aleksander Kerensky’s provisional, anti-tsarist government under the name Joe Steel (Josef Stalin in Russian). When Kerensky’s government was overthrown in the 1917 October Revolution, Stalin was dispatched to the city of Tsaritsyn with orders to keep the countryside under control. His tactics, though extremely violent and brutal, were effective, and he was rewarded with command of an army in southern Russia.
Stalin got a chance to use this army during the 1919 Polish-Soviet War. Stalin was determined to capture the city of Polish-held city of Lviv, but was ordered to send the majority of his troops north to aid in the capture of Warsaw, the Polish capital. Stalin refused, and the ensuing power struggle resulted in the failure to capture both Warsaw and Lviv. Stalin resigned his military commission in disgrace, and turned towards politics instead.
Lenin, remembering Stalin’s earlier commitment to Marxism under the name Ioseb Jughashvili, ensured Stalin’s 1922 appointment as General Secretary of the Communist Party. From this position of power, Stalin was able to expand his influence on the rest of the Soviet government to the point where he could override every other part of the government. Upon Lenin’s death in 1924, he even managed to suppress the reading of Lenin’s Last Will and Testament, which would have removed him from power.
As Stalin’s political rivals in the Soviet Union slowly disappeared, he was able to expand his power even further into Soviet society. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he, with the assistance of his NKVD secret police, sentenced millions of suspected treasonous Soviets to death in the slave labor camps of the Gulag. At the same time, he created a massive political religion, with himself at its head. As the Beloved Leader, Great Father, Great Leader, and countless other narcissistic titles, Stalin dragged the Soviet economy into the 20th century, though at a great cost in human lives.
It was at this point in Stalin’s career as Big Brother that Adolf Hitler decided to invade Poland. Stalin was still smarting from his defeat nearly 20 years before and saw this as an excellent opportunity to accomplish what he’d failed to do so long before. Soviet troops crossed the Polish border on the 17th of September, 1939, and, working with Nazi Germany, destroyed the Polish army and occupied the entire country. Germany, despite having plans for Eastern Europe, generously allowed the Soviet Union to keep the larger half of Poland, as well as annex part of Finland and the countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
As Stalin consolidated his hold on these new territories, Hitler’s army systematically overran the rest of Europe. By the third week of June, 1941, all of Continental Europe, minus Switzerland, was under some form of Nazi control. Stalin, for some reason or another, saw the situation as two neighbors getting their house in order instead of two prizefighters getting ready for the championship bout. As is, Hitler’s first punch knocked Stalin’s Soviet Union hard against the ropes, and for three months it looked as if it might have been a knockout blow.
However, Stalin didn’t get to be a totalitarian dictator with absolute control over the lives of 160 million subjects by giving up easily. He picked himself up, dusted the country off, and struck back. Aided by the Russian winter and overextended supply lines, Stalin rather fancily jab-crossed with his trademarked left and right fists, Stalingrad and Kursk.
With his nose bloodied from the loss of an army at Stalingrad (renamed in the 1920s from Tsaritsyn, Stalin’s old stomping ground), Hitler was completely unprepared for the bone-crushing blow at Kursk. With over a million men lost and countless pieces of equipment captured, it was Hitler’s turn to be on the ropes. Unfortunately for him, Stalin then tag-teamed his American buddy FDR, who threw him a folding chair in the shape of the invasion of Normandy and climbed into the ring. Beset on two fronts by superior forces, Hitler went down swinging.
As he had been in 1939, Stalin was presented with a partition. This time, however, he was partitioning all of Europe, and he was doing it not with an aspiring statelet but with the undisputed master of the Western Hemisphere: the USA. Now, as he hadn’t in 1941, Stalin understood the championship situation he was in. And now, as he had during the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, he was determined to win. Under his leadership, the Soviet Union began the Cold War, which continued nearly 40 years after his death in 1954.