The Basics: Joseph Stalin [wiki] is stirring proof that if you get into an organization at its very beginning, you can rise to great prominence even if you happen to be an evil, tyrannical murderer whom no one ever liked. Stalin became a Marxist in the late 19th century, and although Lenin mentored him for a long time,
he grew to mistrust him, and other Communists thought he was crazy. But Stalin managed to hang around the circles of power. After Lenin's death, he muscled Leon Trotsky and others out and took the reins himself. He went on to consolidate his power in the late 1930s by killing everyone who'd ever said or thought anything vaguely negative about him. Unfortunately, he also threw the country into a disastrous famine with his farm collectivization project, and he sent millions to Soviet concentration camps known as gulags. In short, he was pretty horrible.
Although he took great pains to hide it, Stalin was not, technically, Russian. Born in Gorgi, Georgia (which later had the pleasure of having its population decimated by Stalin's disastrous economic policies), Stalin was christened with the distinctly un-Russian last name Dzugashvili. ("Stalin" was a nickname derived from the Russian word for steel.) In fact, throughout his life, Stalin spoke with a thick Georgian accent. Mentioning his accent, however, was verboten in government circles.
Also, you were well advised not to ridicule that famous Stalin 'stache. In a poem intended only for friends, Osip Mandelstam [wiki] compared Stalin's mustache to a cockroach. Thereafter, Mandelstam was repeatedly arrested and sent to a series of those infamous gulags.
Before he was an atheistic tyrant, Josef Stalin was, oddly enough, a seminarian. He studied at a Georgian Orthodox seminary in Tiflis for five years, between 1894 and 1899. He left the seminary either because of poor health (his mom's story) or revolutionary activity (Stalin's story). Either way, Stalin clearly didn't take much of what he learned to heart. That is, assuming he had one.
Nikita Khrushchev wrote that Stalin loved his daughter, Svetlana, like a cat loves a mouse. And Stalin's other two kids didn't even fare that well. He mostly ignored his son Vasily, an alcoholic with a sadistic streak. Stalin's other boy, Yakov [wiki], was driven to shoot himself by his father's relentless cruelty. When he learned that Yakov had only been wounded, Stalin said, "Ha! He can't even shoot straight."
In August 1941, Stalin announced that the government would arrest the families of all captured Russian officers because only "malicious traitors" would get captured by the Germans anyway. But then Yakov got captured, putting Stalin in the awkward position of technically being required to arrest himself. (Instead, he arrested Yakov's wife.) When
the Germans offered a prisoner exchange, Stalin told them, "I have no son Yakov," which Yakov no doubt wished was true. Shortly thereafter, Yakov was shot and killed while running for the prison fence.
Stalin once famously said, "One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Well, then, the statistics are staggering: Some historians believe that between the murder, the stage-sanctioned famine, and the concentration camps, Stalin was responsible for 40 million deaths. Forty million people is, approximately, the population of Spain.
From mental_floss' book Scatterbrained, published in Neatorama with permission.
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