The man who the world would come to know as Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, on December 21, 1879, in the Georgian village of Gori, a small town in the southern reaches of the vast Russian Empire. He was the third child born to Vissarion Dzhugashvili, a poor shoemaker, and his wife Yekaterina, who augmented her husband's income by working as a domestic servant. However, the young Iosif was the only one of their offspring to survive infancy. Vissarion was an abusive, hard-drinking man, who eventually failed as an independent artisan and left his family to work in a factory in Tiflis, the capital of Georgia, when his son was five years old. For the rest of Stalin's childhood, Joseph and Yekaterina lived in the home of a priest, Father Charkviani, where the pious, hard-working woman attempted to ensure that her only son would be well-educated enough to escape the drudgery of a lower- class existence.
Georgia was a mountainous region, which at the time of Stalin's birth had been under the rule of the Tsar for only about fifty years. Like other great despots (the Austrian-born German ruler Hitler, the Corsican-born French leader Napoleon), Stalin was an outsider, a provincial in the empire he came to rule. Georgians possessed their own culture and language, which was radically different from the official Russian of the empire, and the young Stalin only began learning Russian when he was nine years old. Years later, at the height of his power, he still spoke with a pronounced Georgian accent, and while he boasted that he had forgotten the language of his birth, it is reported that in his last years his ability to speak Russian deteriorated, and he spoke only in Georgian. In other ways, too, he retained pieces of his native culture--during his early days as a revolutionary, he took the name "Koba," after a legendary Georgian bandit. But he never showed any partiality to Georgia politically: he generally treated it, in his own words, as merely a "little piece of Soviet territory called Georgia."
Culturally separate as it was, one institution that Stalin's birthplace shared with the larger Russian Empire was the Orthodox Church; indeed, Georgia actually converted to Christianity more than 500 years before Russia. The Church played a strong role in his early life: he lived with a priest, and his schooling was religious. His mother enrolled him in the Gori Church School in September 1888, when her son was nine, and he graduated six years later, despite various interruptions. (One of these interruptions lasted a whole year: Stalin's father took the young boy to Tiflis to work alongside him in a shoe factory. Vissarion seems to have intended this as a permanent career for his son, but his mother intervened, and succeeded in bringing her son home to Gori. Thereafter his father was never a strong presence in Stalin's life--he would die before World War I, although the exact date is uncertain.)
Stalin was a somewhat misshapen and diminutive boy: smallpox left his face scarred and pitted for the rest of his life, and a case of blood poisoning caused his left arm to grow shorter than his right; in a school photograph he appears considerably smaller than the boys around him. (Indeed, he would never cut a very imposing figure--he grew to just five feet four inches, and for the rest of his life his shortness rankled him, causing him to resort to platform shoes and other devices in an effort to appear taller than he actually was.) However, Stalin received excellent grades, and distinguished himself in the school choir. He seems to have loved reading, devouring the classics of Georgian literature as well as adventure novels, and he had a passion for the outdoors, spending days climbing in the wild, mountainous countryside around Gori. Thus he was ardent and energetic, and developed physical strength despite his short arm and small stature. He was swarthy, too, and contemporaries described his eyes as being yellowish--many compared them to the eyes of a tiger.
Stalin graduated from the church school in July 1894, near the top of his class. He had a reputation for being callous toward his fellow students, and had been in trouble with the school authorities a few times, but there were no other signs of the direction his career was to take. Indeed, he seems to have been a pious young man--unsurprising, given his upbringing. At his mother's urging, he applied for and won a small scholarship to the Tiflis Theological Seminary, where he enrolled in September 1894. Yekaterina worked hard to help him afford the tuition, and she nourished a strong hope that her son would become a priest. Indeed, even years later, when Stalin ruled all of Russia, she told an interviewer that she would have preferred for him to have entered the priesthood. Russia, in retrospect, might have preferred it as well.