Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in the village of Gori, in the Russian province of Georgia, on Dec. 21, 1879. His father was a shoemaker with a penchant for drunkenness, who left Gori when Stalin was young to seek employment in the city of Tiflis. Thus Joseph's mother, Yekaterina, made the more profound impact on his life--it was she who directed his education, first in the local Gori Church School and then, thanks to a scholarship, at the Tiflis Theological Seminary. There, she hoped, he would train to become a priest. Instead, the young Stalin became a devoted advocate for Marxist revolution.
After leaving the Seminary in 1899, he joined the Social Democrats, Russia's Marxist political party, and became a professional revolutionary. He worked in Tiflis, and then in the Black Sea port of Batumi, organizing worker protests, which led to his arrest in 1902. Exiled to Siberia, he would soon escape, setting a pattern for the next ten years: from 1902 to 1913 he would be arrested and exiled six times, escaping almost every time. (Siberian exile, in Tsarist Russia, was notoriously easy to escape from.) During this period, the Social Democrats split into two factions, the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Lenin, and the Mensheviks. Stalin joined the more radical Bolsheviks, and by the time World War I arrived, in 1914, he had attended a number of Party Congresses and risen high in Lenin's favor, who appointed him to the Bolshevik Central Committee. It was at this time that he adopted the name "Stalin," meaning "steel one."
In 1917, the Russian Revolution toppled the Tsarist government. From March until November of that year, Russia was ruled by a Provisional Government, which made plans for a democratically elected assembly. A number of miscalculations, however, along with the strain of continuing the war with Germany, paved the way for a Bolshevik coup in November of 1917. The new government, led by Lenin, made peace with the Germans and undertook a bloody, three-year civil war, in which Stalin commanded on several fronts. The real hero of the conflict, however, was Leon Trotsky, a former Menshevik who organized the Red Army and guided the Bolsheviks to victory.
After the war, the Bolsheviks renamed themselves the Communist Party, and declared Russia the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Stalin was elected General Secretary of the Party in 1922, and although he quickly began to increase his personal power, no one realized how dangerous he was at this time. As he neared a 1924 death, Lenin began to grow wary of his former protégé, and wrote a Testament warning against Stalin's influence. But the other members of the Politburo, Lenin's circle of advisers, ignored the Testament and allowed Stalin to remain in a position of power. At this point, Stalin began his rise to dominance by destroying his rival Trotsky, expelling him from the party in 1927 and exiling him from the Soviet Union in 1929. Meanwhile, he brilliantly played the Politburo's factions off one another, first allying with Nikolai Bukharin and his "Rightists" to destroy the "Leftists," and then, when his position was secure, turning on Bukharin and destroying his power. By 1930, he stood alone atop the Party and the Soviet Union.
Once in power, Stalin began a drive to industrialize and modernize the Soviet Union, with a Five-Year Plan (1927-32) based on Marxist principles championing government control of the economy. Central to his program was the collectivization of agriculture, in which the government would redistribute the land by taking over the estates of the "kulaks", the wealthiest peasants. But the kulaks were essentially a figment of Marxist propaganda (there existed no real difference between these "wealthiest" peasants and all other peasants), and collectivization reaped disaster--the government persecuted and killed the peasantry, famine swept the country, and as many as ten million may have died. But Stalin's grip on power was not shaken, save perhaps in his home, where his wife Nadezhda committed suicide in 1932.
Then, in December 1934, Stalin ordered the assassination of Sergei Kirov, a member of his Politburo whom he suspected being a locus of opposition to his rule. This touched off the "Great Terror," a period during which Stalin had all of his enemies, real and imagined, put to death or shipped off to Siberian prisons. This period culminated in the Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38; in these, Stalin tried all of his defeated 1920s opponents for treason--and, via horribly effective torture, forced them to make public confessions which he broadcast worldwide.
Meanwhile, World War II was fast approaching. As Hitler rose to power in Germany, Stalin first contemplated forming a defensive alliance with Britain and France against the Nazis. But he wanted to avoid war at all costs, and in 1939 he signed the Nazi- Soviet Pact, which pledged that the two dictatorships would not attack one another, and granted Stalin permission to take over the Baltic States and eastern Poland, and prosecute a war in Finland. But in June of 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union in blatant defiance of their pact. At first, the Red Army suffered catastrophic defeats, but they rallied, and after crushing the Nazis at Stalingrad in 1942-43, they were on their way to winning the war.
As victory inched nearer, Stalin seemed determined to make the Soviet Union dominant in Europe. Even during the war, he made inflexible demands of his new allies, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain and President Franklin Roosevelt of the United States. After Germany fell, he used Red Army troops to forcibly install Communist governments in Eastern Europe and further his country's interests around the world. Meanwhile, he launched a new wave of repression in the Soviet Union. By 1949, Soviet scientists had exploded an atomic bomb, giving them nuclear parity with the United States. The Cold War had begun.
Even in his final years, Stalin remained dangerous. He gave Kim Il Sung of North Korea the go-ahead to start the Korean War in 1950, and launched a new series of persecutions at home, this time against the Jews. He seems to have been contemplating further anti-Semitic measures, and possibly a purge of his associates in the Party, when he died on March 5, 1953.