Through the first four decades of his life, Joseph Stalin achieved little. He was born in 1878 to a poor family in Gori, Georgia, then part of the Russian empire. His father was a cobbler; his mother, a cleaning lady and seamstress. Stalin’s childhood, illnesses and mishaps included, was largely normal for the time. He received good marks in school and, as a teenager, got his poems published in well-regarded Georgian periodicals. (“To this day his beautiful, sonorous lyrics echo in my ears,” one reader would later recall.) But he did not sit for his final-year exams at the Tiflis Seminary and failed to graduate. Instead of becoming a priest, he became an underground revolutionary fighting tsarist oppression, spending the next 20 years hiding, organizing, and serving time in prison and internal exile in Siberia.
Stalin’s life was altered forever by the outbreak of total war in 1914, which helped precipitate the Russian tsar’s abdication in February 1917 and, later that year, a putsch by radical leftists led by Vladimir Lenin. Suddenly, the 39-year-old Stalin was a leading member of the new Bolshevik regime.
He played a central role in the Russian Civil War and the creation of the Soviet Union. In 1922, Lenin appointed him head of the Communist Party. A month later, Lenin was incapacitated by a stroke, and Stalin seized his chance to create his own personal dictatorship inside the larger Bolshevik one. Beginning in the late 1920s, he forced through the building of a socialist state, herding 120 million peasants onto collective farms or into the gulag and arresting and murdering immense numbers of loyal people in the officer corps, the secret police, embassies, spy networks, scientific and artistic circles, and party organizations.
The vast shadow of Stalin the despot often hides Stalin the human being. He collected watches. He played skittles and billiards. He loved gardening and Russian steam baths. He liked colored pencils—blue, red, and green. He drank mineral water and wines from his native Georgia. He
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