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The Early Years of Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin was born with the name Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on the 18th of December 1878. His modest home was in Gori, a city in eastern Georgia (see map). Georgia had been under Imperial Russian rule since 1801, and would eventually become part of Stalin's Soviet Union.
Stalin's father, Vissarion, was a cobbler with his own business in Gori. He was fluent in Russian, Georgian, Armenian, and Turkish. In 1872 he married Stalin's mother, the 17 year old Ketevan Geladze; a deeply religious, peasant serf.
Their first two sons died shortly after birth, causing Vissarion to develop a drinking problem. When Iosif (Stalin) was born with a number of birth defects, including two conjoined toes, Vissarion's alcoholism may have been to blame.
Stalin's Violent Childhood
By the time Stalin was born in 1878, both of his parents had deep-seated plans for how he should mature. Ketevan wanted him to become a Bishop, while Vissarion wanted him to become a cobbler. This conflict of interests fueled Vissarion's alcoholism further, leading to the failure of his business and the breakdown of the marriage.
As the cobbling business continued to suffer, the family frequently moved to cheaper and more squalid accommodation. Vissarion beat his wife and son regularly, and some scholars have proposed that this abuse led to Stalin's unusually cruel proclivities in later life. When a ten year old Stalin was accepted into the Gori Theological school, Vissarion broke the windows in a nearby tavern and assaulted a policeman. He was exiled from the city and took up work in a shoe factory in Tblisi.
Stalin's father repeatedly returned to abduct him from school, forcing him to work in the shoe factory. However, Ketevan had allies within the Church and school who managed to see his safe return. Stalin excelled at school, becoming a talented choir singer and a capable poet. He sung at weddings and his Georgian poetry gained him some notoriety.
Despite the violent and largely lawless surroundings of Gori, and the frequent brawls with other children, Stalin graduated first in his class. However, he didn't escape unscathed. His face was deeply scarred by smallpox at the age of 7, and in later life, he had photographs altered to hide his disfigurement. The beatings from his father also became so severe that he had blood in his urine at times. Around the age of 10, his left arm became disfigured through illness, fighting, or abuse, causing it to be two inches shorter than the right. Finally, at 12 years, Stalin was seriously injured in a collision with a horse-drawn carriage, and required months of rehabilitation.
Stalin's Revolutionary Leanings
After his school graduation, Stalin entered the Orthodox Seminary of Tiflis; a spiritual training institution. At 16 years of age, these were formative and rebellious years in Stalin's life. He quickly objected to the strict discipline and ascetic lifestyle within the Seminary. He also became an atheist and asked his friends to call him `Koba', the name of an outlaw he had read about in a banned book.
Under instruction from the Tsarist regime, the Seminary promoted Russian culture and taught all classes in the Russian language. This sickened Stalin who had enjoyed writing Georgian poetry. He began to read Marxist and other revolutionary material that was banned by the institution. By the time he was 20, Stalin had joined the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, which would later split into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.
Possibly in a bid to deter their increasingly nationalistic Georgian students, the Seminary raised tuition fees shortly before the final exams, and Stalin left in 1899 without graduating. He obtained a low-payed job with the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory, which gave him time to read the works of Vladimir Lenin. His subsequent admiration for Lenin eventually led to him choosing the Bolsheviks over the Mensheviks when the Labour Party split.
At the Observatory (and at his later job in an oil refinery) he organized strikes and demonstrations for the workers. This educed the scrutiny of the Tsar's secret police, though he evaded capture when he spotted them waiting to ambush him at the Observatory. He retreated from public life to become a full time revolutionary; using `Koba' as his nickname. He eventually changed his name to Stalin (meaning `steel') and worked his way into Lenin's inner circle after being elected to represent the Bolsheviks in Georgia. When Lenin died, Stalin seized power, and the rest, as they say, is history!
What Made Stalin So Evil?
Joseph Stalin went on to massacre around 30 million people, including many of his peers, allies, and competitors in government. He starved entire regions of the Soviet Union during the famine of the 1930s, purged huge swathes of the population, and forced others into labor camps. This has led many people to describe Stalin as an evil man, but can his childhood be blamed?
There can be no definitive answer, but there are a number of consistencies between Stalin's early years, and the upbringing of other individuals who've had a penchant for cruelty. An abusive childhood, characterized by severe anxiety, fear, and helplessness is a common precursor to psychopathic or antisocial behavior in later life. Strict discipline, frequent relocation, parental separation, and violence among one's peers are also linked to later problems.
As Stalin's mother was beaten by his father, it is possible that his mother's tendency to seek comfort from God caused her to recommend the same for her son. This may have reduced his access to a parent who could offer sympathy and understanding during times of need. Indeed, the violent brawling between Stalin and his peers would have reduced this access further. Although speculative, it should be noted that Adolf Hitler also had a deeply religious mother, and this may be a research avenue that deserves more attention.
It is also interesting how the Tsarist regime cultivated Stalin's opposition to them. If they had not inculcated a Russian curriculum at Stalin's school, he may have become a priest or a poet. Without any prior attachment to Marxism, their actions pushed Stalin towards anti-Tsarist, revolutionary writings. Despite this, Stalin held down a respectable job after leaving school. He only became a full time revolutionary when the secret police attempted to ambush him. Without the need to go underground, Stalin may never have attained a position of power within the Bolshevik movement.