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Joseph Stalin

The Coming of the Revolution

The Underground Years

Civil War and Consolidation

When he received word of his selection to the Bolshevik Central Committee, Stalin made haste to escape from his exile in Vologda. He returned to St. Petersburg, and immediately threw himself into Marxist activity. He met with important revolutionary figures and wrote several articles, including one for the newly formed Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda (later to become famous as the official organ of the Soviet Union). He was re-arrested on May 5, 1912, and shipped to the distant Siberian town of Narym, where he remained only a few months before escaping yet again. His exile there was noteworthy only because Narym would later be a center for deportation under Communist rule: in 1930-31, almost 200,000 peasants were deported into the swampy region--and the Communist-trained guards permitted few Stalin-like escapes.

It was during this time that Stalin began to use the name by which he would be known to history. While it did not become official until 1917, by 1912-13 "Stalin," meaning the "steel one," had replaced "Koba" as his party pseudonym. It was under this name that he went to Switzerland in the winter of 1912, where he met with Lenin and collaborated on a theoretical work, Marxism and the National and Colonial Question. The work deviated from orthodox Marxism, which declared that "the proletarian has no country," by advocating national self-determination within the Russian Empire. (This was little more than a piece of political pandering: once the Bolsheviks took power, they brutally squelched nationalist sentiment.) The collaboration marked the first time that Lenin and Stalin had worked together for any length of time, and Lenin was favorably impressed by the younger man's efforts.

Upon his return from Switzerland in March 1913, Stalin was arrested for the final time, and shipped off to the most distant of his exile locations, the little village of Kureika, north of the Arctic Circle. There he would remain, along with a number of other Bolsheviks, until 1916; he shared living space with Yakov Sverdlov, one of the key figures in the Revolution. Meanwhile, Russia had entered World War I on the side of the French and British, and soon found itself embroiled in a bloody, costly conflict with Germany. Casualties were heavy, but the Russian armies held their own, and as late as December 1916, when Stalin and the other prisoners were summoned west to be enlisted as soldiers (the "steel one" was rejected for service because of his weak arm), there was no sign of impending collapse. But while the armies remained in fighting shape, the government was ripe for a fall. Nicholas II and his German wife, Alexandra, had alienated the people with their reliance on the magnetic, self-proclaimed holy man Grigory Rasputin (who had been assassinated by Russian nobles in 1916); few retained faith in the Tsar's ability to prosecute the war. In March 1917, food shortages in St. Petersburg (the Russians had renamed it Petrograd during the war, replacing its German name) led to protests and a mutiny by the Tsar's troops; on the advice of his generals, Nicholas abdicated, and a Provisional Government was formed, claiming authority over all of Russia, and pledging to continue the war effort. The autocracy had fallen.

Stalin and the other Bolsheviks hastened to the capital, where they found the Provisional Government coexisting uneasily with a Marxist-controlled "Soviet," or council, which claimed to represent Russia's workers. Lenin remained away in Switzerland, unable to cross the war zone and reach Russia; thus his subordinates forged on alone. They produced the first legal edition of Pravda (Stalin was elected to the paper's editorial board), and after a brief power struggle, Stalin and Lev Kamenev emerged as the leaders of the Bolshevik faction, despite qualms among a number of Bolsheviks over Stalin's uncongenial personality. On the Petrograd Soviet, which was dominated by Mensheviks, Stalin and Kamenev pursued a policy of reconciliation with their fellow Marxists, and even went so far as to suggest Bolshevik support for the war effort. They may have anticipated that a reunited Marxist party could accept, and work within, the new political order.

Lenin, writing furiously from Switzerland, adamantly objected to the way his underlings were running matters in his absence: his letters and telegrams denounced both the Provisional Government and the Mensheviks, and criticized Stalin and Kamenev's tentative support for the political order. Nevertheless, Stalin began negotiations for an alliance with the Mensheviks, in direct violation of Lenin's wishes. However, by April Lenin had returned to Russia, thanks to the intervention of the German government; the Germans shipped the Bolshevik leader across the border in a sealed train, hoping (with good reason, as it turned out) that he would help to destabilize the Russian war effort. The long-absent leader immediately reasserted his authority over the party; a brief debate glimmered in the pages of Pravda, but by the time of the Party Conference on April 24, many members--including Stalin--had deserted Kamenev and become supporters of Lenin's point of view. The Conference, at Lenin's urging, proceeded to elect Stalin to the Central Committee; this marked the first time that he had come to a party post via election rather than appointment.

During the months that followed, the Bolsheviks, under the guidance of Sverdlov, gradually improved their organization in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), and Lenin forged a tremendously important alliance by bringing the brilliant Leon Trotsky on board. Although Stalin and the leading Bolsheviks continued their agitation, spurring a worker's revolt in early July, the Provisional Government apparently did not consider Stalin sufficiently important to jail, and he and Sverdlov became the public leaders of the party. Meanwhile, the Provisional Government faced difficulties: the war was going badly; and a breach between Alexander Kerensky, the newly elected head of the government, and General Kornilov, the military commander, led to an army uprising in 1917 that the government was able to put down only with the help of the Bolsheviks. Lenin urged immediate action to topple the tottering, Kerensky-led government. Trotsky and Sverdlov now stood at the fore, and it was they who organized the Bolshevik seizure of power, which occurred--over the objections of Kamenev and others, but with Stalin's support--in November of 1917. The revolutionaries seized the train stations and electric plants in Petrograd; a warship (the sailors were very pro-Bolshevik) aimed its guns at the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Government sat; and Kerensky fled from Russia, eventually taking refuge in the United States. A "Council of People's Commissars" was declared the ruling body of Russia, with Lenin as its head.

Stalin, remarkably, played almost no role in this decisive "November Revolution." While he loyally followed Lenin's lead throughout the turbulent months, he seemed timid--eager for compromise and slow to adapt to new situations. In this, he contrasted sharply with Trotsky, the architect of the Bolshevik putsch. Of course, Stalin would never be able to think fast in crises (save those that he himself created)--a weakness that would have deadly consequences in World War II.

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