The World That Made Stalin — and the World That Stalin Made

Some aspects of Stalin’s life will always remain a mystery. But a fresh look at the Soviet dictator’s formative years can help us understand the rise and fall of the system he built.

Joseph Stalin in 1902. (Stalin Digital Archive / Wikimedia Commons)

It is the unhappy fate of a historian of the Soviet Union to have to deal with Stalin, and the fraught question of how the popular revolution that took place a dozen years before he achieved supreme power mutated from a vast movement for social and political emancipation into a murderous despotism. The Left has been saddled, hobbled, crippled by the legacy of Stalin and Stalinism. Liberals and conservatives constantly resurrect the dark years of his rule as proof of the true meaning and nature of socialism.

An effort to understand the specificities and complexities of Russia, its revolution and civil war, and the colossal transformation of a peasant society into an urban and industrial Great Power requires investments of time, energy, and curiosity, combined with much humility about what we know and can be expected to find out. But then that is what the writing of history is all about.

The Man Who Would Be Stalin

More than three decades ago, I turned from deep investigations of Georgian history to a serious study of Georgia’s most famous and notorious son, Ioseb Jughashvili, the man who became Stalin. There were already dozens of biographies of Stalin, and the need for another was disputable. But my interest was in his early life, his trajectory from the provincial town of Gori where he was born to the October Revolution.

This was the least explored part of Stalin’s life, even though he had lived as long before the revolution as he did after. When asked by a popular biographer who was plowing the same ground what I was focusing on, I answered that my interest was in the revolutionary movement, Social Democracy, labor, and Marxist thought and politics. “Oh good,” he said with relief, “I am interested in his women.”

I set out to place Stalin within the competing cultures through which the son of an alcoholic shoemaker became a major revolutionary and the architect of what he proclaimed to be the first “socialist” society in history. Toward the end of his life, he was arguably the most powerful individual in the world. Yet at various earlier times, he had been seen as a “gray blur,” “the man who missed the revolution,” a “mediocrity” hooked by history. He was Lenin’s “marvelous Georgian,” in wartime the “Generalissimo,” and still later “History’s villain.”

Eschewing the methods of psychohistory, I nevertheless needed to probe into a man, his mind, and experience, all of which were singularly opaque. Stalin is without doubt one of the most tempting and, at the same time, least hospitable subjects for a biographer. Not particularly introspective, he left few intimate letters, no secret diary, and many dubious witnesses to his inner life.

Moreover, Bolshevik political culture was hostile to open personal expression and imposed on Stalin and its other adherents an enforced modesty. Denial of the importance of self was part of the Social Democratic tradition. Even as a grotesque cult of Stalin’s personality grew to gargantuan proportions, Stalin would continue, disingenuously, to claim that he disliked all the fuss.

At different times in his life, Stalin created distinct mystifying narratives about who he was. In the 1930s, that narrative drew parallels with Peter the Great and then with Ivan the Terrible. His earlier narratives were romances about Georgia, the revolutionary hero, the practical man of the underground, the hardened, steeled Bolshevik, who in time became the Lenin loyalist, the man of the moderate middle, and soon afterwards the radical transformer of Russia’s reality.

Stalin Before Stalinism

Stalin’s life story has always been more than biography. There is wonder at the achievement — the son of a Georgian cobbler ascending the heights of world power; the architect of an industrial revolution and the destruction of millions of the people he ruled; the leader of the state that stopped the bloody expansion of fascism. Stalin’s story is that of the making of the Soviet Union and a particular vision of what he called socialism. His biographers have often placed historical imagination at the service of a specific politics of eroding (or lauding) the Stalinist inheritance.

Such a life story cannot be separated from an evaluation of that life’s work. In twenty-first-century Russia, visions of Stalin are deployed to justify yet another slide into authoritarianism, while in the West, the entirety of the Soviet experience is often reduced to Stalin and Stalinism, the Great Purges, and the gulag. The drama of his life, the achievements and tragedies, are so morally and emotionally charged that they challenge the usual practices of historical objectivity and scholarly neutrality. When it comes to Stalin, gossip is reported as fact; legend provides meaning.

Stalin’s early years — before he was Stalin — are the most elusive and obscure period of his life. Here the lasting fascination with the demon dictator is matched by an irresistible temptation to make his childhood and youth “useful,” by investing them with the first signs of the paranoid revolutionary-from-above of the 1930s, the arch-criminal who presided over the death of millions.

Those who “know” the autocratic Stalin of totalitarian Russia have read back the characteristics of the general secretary into the young Stalin, emphasizing what fits — violence, paranoia, arrogance, and the need to dominate — and rejecting what does not — romanticism, literary sensibility, love for his homeland, and revolutionary idealism. As important as Stalin’s early life was to the formation of his personality, the difficulties of reconstructing it from the few extant memoirs about his youth and scanty available documentation have sometimes led to flimsily-built psychoanalytic speculation, and, at other times, to fanciful arguments that Stalin must have been an agent for the tsar’s Okhrana (political police).

The Perils of Psychohistory

Reducing the complexity of the biographical subject to a single explanatory key — in Stalin’s case, the psychohistorians have proposed parental abuse — impoverishes explanation. Most historians have been suspicious of a method that leaves so much out — culture and context, politics and ideas — and renders stated motivations suspect, reducing them to psychological functions (rationalization, compensation, sublimation).

Stalin’s boyhood friend, Ioseb Iremashvili, later a political opponent, composed the first memoir of the Soviet ruler’s childhood, where he made the primary psychological deduction later followed by other biographers:

Undeserved, terrible beatings made the boy as hard and heartless as his father himself. Since all men who had authority over others either through power or age reminded him of his father, there soon arose a feeling of revenge against all men who stood above him. From his youth the realization of his thoughts of revenge became the goal toward which everything was aimed.

Stalin evidently had a different evaluation of the disciplining practiced by his parents. When the popular German biographer Emil Ludwig, known for his interviews with the political celebrities of the interwar years, met with Stalin in the Kremlin, he indelicately broached the issue of parental abuse: “What pushed you into opposition? Perhaps the bad treatment by your parents?” Stalin did not take the bait, however. “No,” he answered. “My parents were uneducated people, but they treated me not badly at all.”

A Product of His Environments

Yet, as I dug into the sources, I realized that for all his dissembling and deception, his playacting and posturing, Stalin revealed himself through what he did and said in public. Ten years after I began my research, the Soviet archives were opened, and more reliable testimonies came forth. Biographers were able for the first time to place the man in his private world, show his limits as well as his talents, and work toward a portrait that might explain the seemingly inexplicable.

Stalin was an exceptional individual because of what he became and what he did, the positions he occupied in a tumultuous time. But like many people in higher politics, he was at the same time quite ordinary — a small man placed in extraordinary circumstances.

In my book, Stalin’s psychological evolution is treated as the interplay between the developing character of the boy from Georgia, and the social and cultural environments through which Soso Jughashvili — later Koba, still later Stalin — moved. Each of these environments — the ethnocultural setting of Georgia, the revolutionary intelligentsia, the Marxist movement, the underground, prison and exile, on to the upper circles of Russian Social Democracy, the fire of civil war, the inner workings of the Soviet political system, and the political cultures of socialism — left its imprint upon Stalin, changing him along the way.

As life’s experiences molded him, what he was becoming modified what he had been. He was not born a criminal and did not become a Caucasian bandit. Rather than being a gangster out to enrich himself, he was the product of — and a participant in — an evolving culture of the underground revolutionary. Idealism and ideology, as well as resentment and ambition, impelled him to endure the risks and recklessness of a political outlaw.

He hardened himself, accepted the necessity of deception, ruthlessness, and violence — all these means justified by the end of social and political liberation. Before the story of a “revolution betrayed” can be told, the story must first be recounted of how a political revolutionary was made, along with the emergence of the revolutionary movement, its possibilities, ambitions, and trials.

Georgian Complexities

Stalin spent the first third of his life in Georgia. He was born, raised, and educated in that beautiful and troubled land, and Georgia was the first cultural environment that he experienced. Yet it is hard to claim that Jughashvili became Stalin because of something essentially Georgian, as there is no archetypical Georgian.

His boyhood country was a lively arena in which people defined and defended what they considered to be their culture and its values, often bitterly disagreeing with other members of the same ethnicity. Nationalists like to think of ethnic culture as something harmonious and consistent, with those inside that culture sharing characteristics that differ radically from those outside. But Georgia was part of a larger Caucasian cultural sphere and embedded in the imperial Russian polity with its own cultural and social influences.

Among Georgians, values and behaviors were simultaneously shared and contested. Older traditions contended with novel divisions of power and shifts in status and gender hierarchies. Poets and politicians made claims about what was authentically “Georgian.” In the half century before Stalin’s birth, there were those ready to “police” the boundaries of Georgian culture, tell others what was authentic and proper, and discipline deviants.

Aspects of Stalin’s ethnic culture were breaking down and being reformulated, and intellectuals turned their attention to what they feared was about to be lost. But young Soso Jughashvili, influenced by his doting mother, identified intensely with Georgia, its practices and preferences, the beautiful intricacies and cadences of its language, its music, and its hypermasculine gender regime.

Koba the Marxist

A more mature Koba eventually broke through what he found to be the confining limits of nationality to identify with an explicitly anti-nationalist political party and its socialist future. In rapid succession, Soso left the largely Georgian town of his birth and entered other cultural milieus: the Orthodox Christian seminary, the intelligentsia, the movement, and the party.

By his twenty-first birthday, he had become a professional revolutionary defined by a new culture: the political culture of Russian Social Democracy, with its specific forms of moral and personal behavior, its idealized self-representations of what constituted an intelligent (a radical political intellectual), and its elaborate codes of loyalty and sacrifice.

During the Cold War, battalions of Soviet and Western scholars explored the history of Russian Social Democracy, the Marxist movement that had split irrevocably into Bolshevik and Menshevik tendencies by 1905, and whose radical wing led by Vladimir Lenin came to power in October 1917. The stories they told were diametrically opposed to one another, each a product of the intellectual and political imperatives of their respective worlds.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, interest in the intricacies of the political struggles of the Marxist factions, and their meanings and influences on the Soviet future evaporated. Yet at the same moment, the less contentious environment of the post-Soviet period, along with the opening of Soviet archives, made possible a reevaluation of the history of Russian (and Georgian) Marxism, and their respective and distinct labor movements.

Since those movements and the Marxist underground were the major breeding grounds for Stalin and those around him, I have undertaken in Stalin: Passage to Revolution a fresh reading of the history of those movements out of which the Soviet experiment and Stalin himself emerged.

The Logic of War

Elaborating the cultural worlds through which the young Stalin passed makes possible a fuller understanding of the sources of the Soviet leader’s particular psychology, and the determinants of his personal and political trajectory. An understanding of the man comes from setting him in his time and place, even though some parts of his inner workings undoubtedly remain elusive, buried in regions to which historians are not admitted.

Poverty was the condition of the world into which he came. The constant and demanding attention and fierce adulation focused on her son by Soso’s single present parent, his mother, fed his social resentment at his place in the scheme of things. Aware of being marginalized and at the same time talented, Soso found that hard work and discipline moved him to the front of the class. His inheritance from both parents was ambition.

The usual biographical narrative, with its organic continuity between boy, young adult, and mature man, is challenged by the reconstruction of the available fragments of Stalin’s life. Those fragments suggest a much more disjointed evolution, in the course of which Soso/Koba/Stalin shed one identity and took on another. The obedient child and priest-in-training became a rebel; the Georgian patriot and romantic poet became an assimilated Russian — though only in part, and primarily in his public posture. The militant Bolshevik at times took on the coloring of a moderate.

As he moved physically and psychologically away from Georgia, Stalin left behind a culture in which one’s sense of personhood derived from family, friends, and nation, and entered a world in which one defined one’s own nature in line with a particular understanding of historical direction and the unforgiving imperatives of politics. By becoming a rebel against the existing order, revolutionaries like Stalin declared war on constituted authorities.

For Marxists in the Russian Empire, politics were less about compromise and persuasion, and more about the violent, unforgiving confrontations to be found on the battlefield. A logic of war prevailed, one that required (sometimes with regret) the use of violence. Stalin responded both to inner needs and external possibilities and challenges, and was deeply changed by the experiences of seminary, underground, prison, revolution, civil war, and political power. The figure that emerged on the world stage was simultaneously a product of the successive cultures through which he passed, and an actor making choices and defining himself in unprecedented and unpredictable historical circumstances.

Delving deep into Georgia and its culture, I attempted carefully to construct a mosaic of diverse pieces of information — from the variety of archival documents, official and unofficial memoirs, even photographs — until a legible portrait of young Stalin emerged. My aim was to evoke from that mosaic a credible and convincing interpretation of the evolution of the boy, Soso Jughashvili, through the young Koba, to the mature Stalin — an elucidation of his personal, psychological, and political formation that could shed light on his motivations and choices.

Jughashvili remains an elusive character, even to the most diligent scholar, but his early life provides important clues to the mysteries of Stalin and, hopefully, offers some understanding of why a revolution committed to human emancipation ended up in dictatorship and terror.

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Ronald Suny is the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Emeritus Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago, and Senior Researcher at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He is the author of The Baku Commune, 1917-1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1972), among many other works.

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