Childhood to young adulthood: 1878–1899
Stalin was born in the Georgian town of Gori on 18 December [O.S. 6 December] 1878.[d] He was the son of Besarion "Beso" Jughashvili and Ekaterine "Keke" Geladze, who had married in May 1872, and had lost two sons in infancy prior to Stalin's birth. They were ethnically Georgian and Stalin grew up speaking the Georgian language. Gori was then part of the Russian Empire, and was home to a population of 20,000, the majority of whom were Georgian but with Armenian, Russian, and Jewish minorities. Stalin was baptised on 29 December. He was nicknamed "Soso", a diminutive of "Ioseb".
Stalin in 1894, aged about 15
Besarion was a shoemaker and owned his own workshop; it was initially a financial success, but later fell into decline. The family found themselves living in poverty, moving through nine different rented rooms in ten years. Besarion became an alcoholic, and drunkenly beat his wife and son. To escape the abusive relationship, Keke took Stalin and moved into the house of a family friend, Fr. Christopher Charkviani. She worked as a house cleaner and launderer for local families sympathetic to her plight. Keke was determined to send her son to school, something that none of the family had previously achieved. In late 1888, aged 10 Stalin enrolled at the Gori Church School. This was normally reserved for the children of clergy, although Charkviani ensured that the boy received a place. Stalin excelled academically, displaying talent in painting and drama classes, writing his own poetry, and singing as a choirboy. He got into many fights, and a childhood friend later noted that Stalin "was the best but also the naughtiest pupil" in the class. Stalin faced several severe health problems; in 1884, he contracted smallpox and was left with facial pock scars. Aged 12, he was seriously injured after being hit by a phaeton, which was the likely cause of a lifelong disability to his left arm.
In 1894 Stalin began his studies at the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary (pictured here in the 1870s)
At his teachers' recommendation, Stalin proceeded to the Spiritual Seminary in Tiflis. He enrolled at the school in August 1894, enabled by a scholarship that allowed him to study at a reduced rate. Here he joined 600 trainee priests who boarded at the seminary. Stalin was again academically successful and gained high grades. He continued writing poetry; five of his poems were published under the pseudonym of "Soselo" in Ilia Chavchavadze's newspaper Iveria ('Georgia'). Thematically, they dealt with topics like nature, land, and patriotism. According to Stalin's biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore, they became "minor Georgian classics", and were included in various anthologies of Georgian poetry over the coming years. As he grew older, Stalin lost interest in his studies; his grades dropped, and he was repeatedly confined to a cell for his rebellious behaviour. Teachers complained that he declared himself an atheist, chatted in class and refused to doff his hat to monks.
Stalin joined a forbidden book club active at the school; he was particularly influenced by Nikolay Chernyshevsky's 1863 pro-revolutionary novel What Is To Be Done? Another influential text was Alexander Kazbegi's The Patricide, with Stalin adopting the nickname "Koba" from that of the book's bandit protagonist. He also read Capital, the 1867 book by German sociological theorist Karl Marx. Stalin devoted himself to Marx's socio-political theory, Marxism, which was then on the rise in Georgia, one of various forms of socialism opposed to the empire's governing Tsarist authorities. At night, he attended secret workers' meetings, and was introduced to Silibistro "Silva" Jibladze, the Marxist founder of Mesame Dasi ('Third Group'), a Georgian socialist group. In April 1899, Stalin left the seminary and never returned, although the school encouraged him to come back.
Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party: 1899–1904
In October 1899, Stalin began work as a meteorologist at a Tiflis observatory. He attracted a group of supporters through his classes in socialist theory, and co-organised a secret workers' mass meeting for May Day 1900, at which he successfully encouraged many of the men to take strike action. By this point, the empire's secret police—the Okhrana—were aware of Stalin's activities within Tiflis' revolutionary milieu. They attempted to arrest him in March 1901, but he escaped and went into hiding, living off the donations of friends and sympathisers. Remaining underground, he helped plan a demonstration for May Day 1901, in which 3,000 marchers clashed with the authorities. He continued to evade arrest by using aliases and sleeping in different apartments. In November 1901, he was elected to the Tiflis Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), a Marxist party founded in 1898.
That month, Stalin travelled to the port city of Batumi. His militant rhetoric proved divisive among the city's Marxists, some of whom suspected that he might be an agent provocateur working for the government. He found employment at the Rothschild refinery storehouse, where he co-organised two workers' strikes. After several strike leaders were arrested, he co-organised a mass public demonstration that led to the storming of the prison; troops fired upon the demonstrators, 13 of whom were killed. Stalin organised a second mass demonstration on the day of their funeral, before being arrested in April 1902. He was initially held at Batumi Prison, and later moved to the more secure Kutaisi Prison. In mid-1903, Stalin was sentenced to three years of exile in eastern Siberia.
Stalin left Batumi in October, arriving at the small Siberian town of Novaya Uda in late November. There, he lived in a two-room peasant's house, sleeping in the building's larder. Stalin made two escape attempts; on the first he made it to Balagansk before returning due to frostbite. His second attempt was successful and he made it to Tiflis. There, he co-edited a Georgian Marxist newspaper, Proletariatis Brdzola ("Proletarian Struggle"), with Philip Makharadze. He called for the Georgian Marxist movement to split off from its Russian counterpart, resulting in several RSDLP members accusing him of holding views contrary to the ethos of Marxist internationalism and calling for his expulsion from the party; he soon recanted his opinions. During his exile, the RSDLP had split between Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks and Julius Martov's Mensheviks. Stalin detested many of the Mensheviks in Georgia and aligned himself with the Bolsheviks. Although Stalin established a Bolshevik stronghold in the mining town of Chiatura, Bolshevism remained a minority force in the Menshevik-dominated Georgian revolutionary scene.
The Revolution of 1905 and its aftermath: 1905–1912
In January 1905, government troops massacred protesters in Saint Petersburg. Unrest soon spread across the Russian Empire in what came to be known as the Revolution of 1905. Georgia was one of the regions particularly affected. In February, Stalin was in Baku when ethnic violence broke out between Armenians and Azeris; at least 2,000 were killed. Stalin publicly lambasted the "pogroms against Jews and Armenians" as being part of Tsar Nicholas II's attempts to "buttress his despicable throne". He formed a Bolshevik Battle Squad which he used to try and keep Baku's warring ethnic factions apart, also using the unrest to steal printing equipment. Amid the growing violence throughout Georgia, Stalin formed further Battle Squads, with the Mensheviks doing the same. Stalin's Squads disarmed local police and troops, raided government arsenals, and raised funds through protection rackets on large local businesses and mines. They launched attacks on the government's Cossack troops and pro-Tsarist Black Hundreds, co-ordinating some of their operations with the Menshevik militia.
In November 1905, the Georgian Bolsheviks elected Stalin as one of their delegates to a Bolshevik conference in Saint Petersburg. On arrival, he met Lenin's wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, who informed him that the venue had been moved to Tampere in the Grand Duchy of Finland. At the conference Stalin met Lenin for the first time. Although Stalin held Lenin in deep respect, he was vocal in his disagreement with Lenin's view that the Bolsheviks should field candidates for the forthcoming election to the State Duma; Stalin saw the parliamentary process as a waste of time. In April 1906, Stalin attended the RSDLP Fourth Congress in Stockholm; this was his first trip outside the Russian Empire. At the conference, the RSDLP—then led by its Menshevik majority—agreed that it would not raise funds using armed robbery. Lenin and Stalin disagreed with this decision, and later privately discussed how they could continue the robberies for the Bolshevik cause.
Stalin married Kato Svanidze in a church ceremony at Senaki in July 1906. In March 1907 she bore a son, Yakov. By that year—according to the historian Robert Service—Stalin had established himself as "Georgia's leading Bolshevik". He attended the Fifth RSDLP Congress, held in London in May–June 1907. After returning to Tiflis, Stalin organized the robbing of a large delivery of money to the Imperial Bank in June 1907. His gang ambushed the armed convoy in Yerevan Square with gunfire and home-made bombs. Around 40 people were killed, but all of his gang escaped alive.
After the heist, Stalin settled in Baku with his wife and son. There, Mensheviks confronted Stalin about the robbery and voted to expel him from the RSDLP, but he took no notice of them.
In Baku, Stalin secured Bolshevik domination of the local RSDLP branch, and edited two Bolshevik newspapers, Bakinsky Proletary and Gudok ("Whistle"). In August 1907, he attended the Seventh Congress of the Second International—an international socialist organisation—in Stuttgart, Germany. In November 1907, his wife died of typhus, and he left his son with her family in Tiflis. In Baku he had reassembled his gang, the Outfit, which continued to attack Black Hundreds and raised finances by running protection rackets, counterfeiting currency, and carrying out robberies. They also kidnapped the children of several wealthy figures to extract ransom money. In early 1908, he travelled to the Swiss city of Geneva to meet with Lenin and the prominent Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov, although the latter exasperated him.
In March 1908, Stalin was arrested and interned in Bailov Prison. There, he led the imprisoned Bolsheviks, organised discussion groups, and ordered the killing of suspected informants. He was eventually sentenced to two years exile in the village of Solvychegodsk, Vologda Province, arriving there in February 1909. In June, he escaped the village and made it to Kotlas disguised as a woman and from there to Saint Petersburg. In March 1910, he was arrested again, and sent back to Solvychegodsk. There he had affairs with at least two women; his landlady, Maria Kuzakova, later gave birth to his second son, Konstantin. In June 1911, Stalin was given permission to move to Vologda, where he stayed for two months, having a relationship with Pelageya Onufrieva. He escaped to Saint Petersburg, where he was arrested in September 1911, and sentenced to a further three-year exile in Vologda.
Rise to the Central Committee and editorship of Pravda: 1912–1917
The first issue of Pravda
, the Bolshevik newspaper of which Stalin was editor
While Stalin was in exile, the first Bolshevik Central Committee had been elected at the Prague Conference, after which Lenin and Grigory Zinoviev invited Stalin to join it. Still in Vologda, Stalin agreed, remaining a Central Committee member for the rest of his life. Lenin believed that Stalin, as a Georgian, would help secure support for the Bolsheviks from the Empire's minority ethnicities. In February 1912, Stalin again escaped to Saint Petersburg, tasked with converting the Bolshevik weekly newspaper, Zvezda ("Star") into a daily, Pravda ("Truth"). The new newspaper was launched in April 1912, although Stalin's role as editor was kept secret.
In May 1912, he was arrested again and imprisoned in the
Shpalerhy Prison, before being sentenced to three years exile in Siberia. In July, he arrived at the Siberian village of Narym, where he shared a room with fellow Bolshevik Yakov Sverdlov. After two months, Stalin and Sverdlov escaped back to Saint Petersburg.
During a brief period back in Tiflis, Stalin and the Outfit planned the ambush of a mail coach, during which most of the group—although not Stalin—were apprehended by the authorities. Stalin returned to Saint Petersburg, where he continued editing and writing articles for Pravda.
After the October 1912 Duma elections resulted in six Bolsheviks and six Mensheviks being elected, Stalin wrote articles calling for reconciliation between the two Marxist factions, for which he was criticised by Lenin. In late 1912, he twice crossed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire to visit Lenin in Kraków, eventually bowing to Lenin's opposition to reunification with the Mensheviks. In January 1913 Stalin travelled to Vienna, there focusing on the 'national question' of how the Bolsheviks should deal with the Russian Empire's national and ethnic minorities. Lenin wanted to attract these groups to the Bolshevik cause by offering them the right of secession from the Russian state, but at the same time hoped they would remain part of a future Bolshevik-governed Russia. Stalin's finished article was titled Marxism and the National Question; Lenin was very happy with it. According to Montefiore, this was "Stalin's most famous work". The article was published under the pseudonym of "K. Stalin", a name he had been using since 1912. Derived from the Russian word for steel (stal), this has been translated as "Man of Steel"; Stalin may have intended it to imitate Lenin's pseudonym. Stalin retained this name for the rest of his life, possibly because it had been used on the article which established his reputation among the Bolsheviks.
In February 1913, Stalin was arrested while back in Saint Petersburg. He was sentenced to four years exile in Turukhansk, a remote part of Siberia from which escape was particularly difficult. In August, he arrived in the village of
Monastyrskoe, although after four weeks was relocated to the hamlet of
Kostino. In March 1914, concerned over a potential escape attempt, the authorities moved Stalin to the hamlet of Kureika on the edge of the Arctic Circle. In the hamlet, Stalin had a relationship with Lidia Pereprygia, who was thirteen at the time and thus a year under the legal age of consent in Tsarist Russia. Circa December 1914, Pereprygia gave birth to Stalin's child, although the infant soon died. She gave birth to another of his children, Alexander, circa April 1917. In Kureika, Stalin lived closely with the indigenous Tunguses and Ostyak, and spent much of his time fishing.
The Russian Revolution: 1917
While Stalin was in exile, Russia entered the First World War, and in October 1916 Stalin and other exiled Bolsheviks were conscripted into the Russian Army, leaving for Monastyrskoe. They arrived in Krasnoyarsk in February 1917, where a medical examiner ruled Stalin unfit for military service due to his crippled arm. Stalin was required to serve four more months on his exile, and he successfully requested that he serve it in nearby Achinsk. Stalin was in the city when the February Revolution took place; uprisings broke out in Petrograd—as Saint Petersburg had been renamed—and Tsar Nicholas II abdicated to escape being violently overthrown. The Russian Empire became a de facto republic, headed by a Provisional Government dominated by liberals. In a celebratory mood, Stalin travelled by train to Petrograd in March. There, Stalin and fellow Bolshevik Lev Kamenev assumed control of Pravda, and Stalin was appointed the Bolshevik representative to the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, an influential council of the city's workers. In April, Stalin came third in the Bolshevik elections for the party's Central Committee; Lenin came first and Zinoviev came second. This reflected his senior standing in the party at the time.
The existing government of landlords and capitalists must be replaced by a new government, a government of workers and peasants.
The existing pseudo-government which was not elected by the people and which is not accountable to the people must be replaced by a government recognised by the people, elected by representatives of the workers, soldiers and peasants and held accountable to their representatives.
— Stalin's editorial in Pravda, October 1917
Stalin helped organise the July Days uprising, an armed display of strength by Bolshevik supporters. After the demonstration was suppressed, the Provisional Government initiated a crackdown on the Bolsheviks, raiding Pravda. During this raid, Stalin smuggled Lenin out of the newspaper's office and took charge of the Bolshevik leader's safety, moving him between Petrograd safe houses before smuggling him to Razliv. In Lenin's absence, Stalin continued editing Pravda and served as acting leader of the Bolsheviks, overseeing the party's Sixth Congress, which was held covertly. Lenin began calling for the Bolsheviks to seize power by toppling the Provisional Government in a coup. Stalin and fellow senior Bolshevik Leon Trotsky both endorsed Lenin's plan of action, but it was initially opposed by Kamenev and other party members. Lenin returned to Petrograd and secured a majority in favour of a coup at a meeting of the Central Committee on 10 October.
On 24 October, police raided the Bolshevik newspaper offices, smashing machinery and presses; Stalin salvaged some of this equipment to continue his activities. In the early hours of 25 October, Stalin joined Lenin in a Central Committee meeting in the Smolny Institute, from where the Bolshevik coup—the October Revolution—was directed. Bolshevik militia seized Petrograd's electric power station, main post office, state bank, telephone exchange, and several bridges. A Bolshevik-controlled ship, the Aurora, opened fire on the Winter Palace; the Provisional Government's assembled delegates surrendered and were arrested by the Bolsheviks. Although he had been tasked with briefing the Bolshevik delegates of the Second Congress of Soviets about the developing situation, Stalin's role in the coup had not been publicly visible. Trotsky and other later Bolshevik opponents of Stalin used this as evidence that his role in the coup had been insignificant, although later historians reject this. According to the historian Oleg Khlevniuk, Stalin "filled an important role [in the October Revolution]... as a senior Bolshevik, member of the party's Central Committee, and editor of its main newspaper"; the historian Stephen Kotkin similarly noted that Stalin had been "in the thick of events" in the build-up to the coup.