Published: February 6, 2019
Joseph Stalin, the brutal Russian dictator who sent millions of his countrymen to their deaths, joined them on this day, after failing to recover from a brain haemorrhage four days earlier. He was 74.
His 30-year term as absolute ruler of the Soviet Union was marked by a long series of atrocities including purges, forced displacements, imprisonment in forced labour camps (Gulags), manufactured famines, torture, acts of mass murder and massacres, in addition to the estimated 20 million Soviet troops and civilians who were killed in the Second World War – making a total reckoning of 40 million.
But nobody can be sure. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the literary giant who wrote harrowingly about the Gulag system, said the true number of Stalin’s victims might have been as high as 60 million.
Stalin eliminated anyone and everyone who was a threat to his power – especially former allies. Historians say he had absolutely no regard for the sanctity of human life. He allegedly declared: “Death is the solution to all problems. No man – no problem.” On another occasion he is reported to have said: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”
So how did this son of a shoemaker from a small town in Georgia, set by his doting mother on the path to becoming a priest, turn into a feared tyrant and mass killer?
Many believe that the regular, savage beatings inflicted by his drunken father inspired vengeful feelings in Stalin towards anyone in a position to wield power over him.
But the angry young man also had to contend with physical shortcomings.
His left arm was shorter than his right with a slightly withered hand due to an injury he received when he was hit by a horse at the age of 12.
He often hid this injury from photographers and other prying eyes by folding his hands over one another or by putting his left hand into his pocket.
On top of this, Stalin’s face was covered in pockmarks from a bout of near fatal smallpox he contracted at age seven, which he hid in later life with, among other methods, his elaborately maintained facial hair.
However, there was no concealing another physical drawback – Stalin was only about five feet, 4 inches (162.5cm) tall – hardly in keeping with the propaganda that depicted him as having "characteristics akin to those of a god" and shown in almost every official photo, painting and sculpture as being a man of gigantic size towering over his subordinates.
To disguise his lack of stature Stalin took to wearing boots with cleverly masked, significantly raised heels and he would often pose for photos while standing on a raised platform or positioned well in front of or above those around him.
None of this fooled United States President Harry Truman who, after meeting the Soviet dictator, described him as "a little squirt."
Stalin's path to power began after he left school and became a political agitator, taking part in demonstrations and strikes. He adopted the name Koba, after a fictional Georgian outlaw-hero, and joined the more militant wing of the Marxist Social Democratic movement, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin.
Stalin also became involved in various criminal activities, including bank robberies, the proceeds being used to help fund the Bolshevik Party.
In 1912, Lenin appointed Stalin to serve on the first Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. Three years later, in November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. The Soviet Union was founded in 1922, with Lenin as its first leader.
During these years, Stalin continued to move up the party ladder, and in 1922 he became secretary general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party – a role that enabled him to appoint his allies to government jobs and develop a base of political support.
After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin eventually outmanoeuvered his rivals and won the power struggle for control of the Communist Party. By the late 1920s, he had become dictator of the Soviet Union.
And then the reign of terror really set in . . .