How did Stalin become Stalin? Many biographers, psychologists, philosophers, and historians have sought answers to how a person becomes the way they are through their subject’s childhood. Just as Hitler’s fanaticism has been explained by his upbringing, so has Stalin’s cruelty been attributed to his father, who as Stalin once said, “thrashed him mercilessly,” or to his mother, who allegedly had an affair with a local minister. Others have accounted his actions to be a result of the smallpox infection that scarred his face, the accident that left Stalin with a withered arm, or the birth defect that joined two of his toes and gave him a webbed left foot—which is also known as the mark of the devil.
Politics have also been a huge factor in influencing Stalin’s actions. During his lifetime supporters made him into a hero, but opponents imposed their prejudices as well. Leon Trotsky was by far Stalin’s worst enemy, and was by his most influential 20th-century analyst, he shaped the views of Stalin for a generation of historians, from Isaac Deutscher onward. Trotsky’s view on Stalin was that he was lacking in wit and happiness, an uneducated and provincial man who gained power through manipulation and plain violence. Above all though, Trotsky version of Stalin was a traitor who betrayed Lenin and the Marxist cause. This was a picture Trotsky painted to serve his own purpose, to inspire Trotsky’s followers to stay loyal to the Soviet revolution that “could have been” if instead of cold and cynical Stalin in power they had Trotsky.
In the 1990’s since the opening of Soviet archives, the psychologized and politicized accounts of Stalin’s life have come to light. Politics still influence how he is publicly remembered in recent years, such as how Russian leaders glossed over some of Stalin’s most horrendous crimes some against his own people, while they celebrate his military takeover of Europe. The availability of thousands of never before seen documents and hidden collections of letters and memoirs has made it possible for historians to write the more compelling truth.
Simon Sebag Montefiore, a historian and journalist, gives a portrait of the dictator as a youthful troublemaker through his contacts in Tbilisi and Moscow. Oleg Khlevniuk, a Russian scholar, searched through obscure archival collections and produced great detailed accounts of the incremental evolution of the Soviet Communist Party from the chaos of the revolution into what ultimately became Stalinism. Through Khlevniuk’s books in addition to edited letters of Stalin to two of his advisors,Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich, along with dozens of published documents on the history of the Gulag, of collectivization, of the Ukrainian famine, of the KGB have shown that the Soviet dictatorship was not created by Stalin through mere trickery. Nor did he do it alone, but through thousands of fanatical secret policemen and a close knit inner circle of equally dedicated men.
We could think of Stalin simply as a ruthless and monstrous dictator that used violence and murder mindlessly to mold and bend the state to his will and in doing so create a totalitarian state where he was the absolute ruler. I think there is also an additional component to Stalin’s approach that was absent, for example, in other dictators such as Mussolini or Hitler (focused on prosecuting specific components of the society): this is the ability to “periodically wage a kind of internal war against different portions of the Russian society to maintain it in a state of constant panic and insecurity”. It seems a strange idea but periodically, under Stalin, in Soviet Russia we see this kind of internal war declared by the State (Stalin) against this or that segment of the society; this war was waged with extreme violence and brutality (apparently without a reason or meaning) periodically decimating, peasants, thinkers, artists, politicians, priests, industrial workers, generals and army officers, members of the party, etc. Basically Stalin every few months declared war against a social group (known generally as a Purge) and in doing so he decimated these groups (the leaders in particular) maintaining a general feeling of terror and insecurity that allowed him to control the society constantly through fear and panic citizens constantly worried about who was going to be the next target. This is something I observed reading in the literature about Stalin and certainly struck me as an odd but decisive attitude of the dictator in maintaining his grip on the Soviet society.