When Joseph Stalin was born in Russian Georgia in 1879, Europe and the world were in the midst of a long century of peace, economic growth, and political reform during which European power had extended across the globe. But strong historical forces were brewing that would bring that peace to a crashing halt as the end of the 19th century witnessed the chaos of two World Wars and innumerable revolutions. Chief among these forces were the linked and competing ideologies of nationalism and Marxism.

As Stalin was himself a Marxist, Marxist ideology merits the most attention in understanding the events of his life. Named for the 19th-century German thinker Karl Marx, Marxism claimed to have unlocked the "scientific" mechanisms of history--and to be able, therefore, to predict the future development of society. Declaring that human history was determined by class warfare, Marx predicted a worldwide revolution initiated by the victims of industrialization, the urban working class. This revolution would lead to a utopia free of all class distinctions, and free of the oppressive forces of national government and religion.

Disastrous consequences ensued when Stalin and his fellow Bolsheviks attempted to put this ideology into practice in Russia, for two main reasons. First, Marx had been quite vague as to the actual structure of the workers' paradise that would result from his predicted revolution; thus, Predictably enough, the "paradise" turned out to be a place in which the revolutionaries ruled in the name of the workers, and in order to enforce their rule, assembled one of the most terrifying police states known to history. Secondly, Marx's theory of classes had been based on an industrial economic system--but Russia was still a largely agrarian society. This led to Lenin's decision to blame the "kulaks," or wealthy peasants, as the agents of oppression. In turn, Stalin collectivized agriculture using horrifying methods; such hate had accumulated for the kulaks that he met little opposition in his Holocaust-like annihilation of them.

Another force with which Stalin had to contend was the worldwide emergence of nationalism. While Marxism demanded an international order based on class, nationalists insisted on a national order based on blood, or ethnicity. The Soviet Union, in order to maintain its control over the former Russian Empire, clamped down on nationalist movements within its borders, including those rising in Stalin's own birthplace, Georgia. But nationalist ideology soon posed an external threat as well--in the form of Hitler's Nazi Germany, where ideas of nation and race had been taken to an expansionist, and murderous, extreme. In order to combat the Nazi threat, Stalin was forced to draw on nationalism of his own, as he turned World War II into a "Great Patriotic War" for "Mother Russia," an idea totally antithetical to Marxist ideology. And even after the war, Stalin's expansionist foreign policy and belligerent tactics bore a striking resemblance to the traditional politics of a nationalistic Russia--as did his domestic persecutions of Russia's Jews.

In a sense, then, despite Stalin's Marxism, it was nationalism that made the deeper mark on his life and legacy, as the prospects of an international workers' revolution gave way to the gritty realities of power politics. And it would make the deeper mark on the Soviet Union, as well--today, Marxism remains unrealized, and nationalist sentiments have broken up Stalin's empire into a dozen smaller states.

Popular pages: Joseph Stalin