German troops cross the Soviet border, June 22 1941
Johannes Hähle

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

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  • STEPHEN KOTKIN is John P. Birkelund ‘52 Professor in History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. This essay is adapted from his most recent book, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941 (Penguin Press, 2017), the second in a three-volume biography of the Soviet leader.
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