Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator, is encased by myth and legend.
He could be, at turns, both charming and chillingly ruthless. Millions died under his direct orders; even his closest allies and compatriots. It was Stalin, after all, who said “I trust no-one, not even myself.”
His purge of Russian generals was so proficient and total that it left few experienced commanders to take their places in the field.
Continuing the series of little-known facts, Military History Monthly unveils ten obscure facts, offering insight into the life of the Soviet dictator.
Uncle Joe’s birth name was Losif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (several other alternative spellings are documented). He started using his assumed name Stalin, roughly translating as ‘man of steel’, in 1910. In addition to fostering his hard-lined image, the moniker was supposedly adopted in an effort to shield his real identity from the police whilst involved in evasive revolutionary activity. Some commentators suggest the son of a modest cobbler chose the name in order to distance himself from his Georgian roots.
A fondness of pseudonyms and nicknames began in childhood. He had previously answered to the name of Koba, in a celebration – as opposed to a denial – of his Georgian heritage. Koba was the romantic hero of Alexander Kazbegi’s 1882 novel, The Patricide, the embodiment of Georgian knightly morality, symbolic of justice and freedom from Imperial oppression.
Some nicknames were perhaps less revered by Stalin. Dissenters labelled him the “Little father of the peoples”, in a reference to his relatively short 5ft4 height. He was described by Harry S. Truman as a “little squirt”.
Although later a synedoche of atheism and the anti-religious stance of Marxism, Stalin was a student of Theology when he joined the Revolutionary movement. His mother had wanted her son to become a priest in the hope that a career in the clergy would relieve him of poverty and bring opportunity. Many of his earlier writings have a theological inclination to them. The intelligent young man was awarded a full scholarship to the Tbilisi Theological Seminary, with the view to becoming ordained into the Russian Orthodox Church. He was ousted seemingly after reading books by Karl Marx, in his early forays into the revolutionary movement.
His relationship with religion, even later in life, is still fiercely contested, with some suggesting he maintained elements of Christian spirituality, despite an overt Marxist outlook.
In an eerie echo of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Stalin suffered a physical abnormality in his left arm, making it distinctly shorter than the right. Both would try to disguise this in official portraits. Unlike the Kaiser, whose affliction resulted from complications during birth, Stalin’s was the product of an accident involving a horse-drawn carriage, aged twelve. His arm had to be reconstructed by extensive surgery, leaving it shorter and stiffened at the elbow.
Stalin was particularly insecure about his physical appearance. He battled small pox as a young child and was left permanently scarred as a result. Official photographs of the dictator would be routinely air-brushed. A far cry from the ‘warts-n-all’ approach adopted by an earlier anti-monarchical revolutionary, Oliver Cromwell, Stalin had several portrait artists shot for their unflattering depictions of him.
Graphic accounts detailing Stalin’s tendency to dispose of those who displeased him often seem too fanciful to be believed. Indeed, whilst many of these may forever remain unresolved, certainly many men and women disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Even more chilling are the alleged exterminations enacted apparently to satisfy his own amusement. One such yarn – depicting a complete indifference towards the value of human life – professes his preferred method of clearing minefields; by ordering his troops to march over them.
The following story implies Stalin could exercise great cruelty, even when in a playful mood. It is common knowledge that Stalin prohibited his guards from entering his private bed chambers on pain of death. One day, in a test of their resilience, Stalin decided to scream as if in great agony. When his loyal guards came to their master’s aid, they were duly executed for failing to follow orders.
When Stalin did actually endure a paralysing seizure, whilst alone in his bedroom, none of his guards dared to come to his aid, on the fear of very tangible reprisals. He was later found semi-conscious by Peter Lozgachev, Deputy Commandant of Kuntsevo, on the floor of the room. He died within a week.
Although known throughout the West as a cruel cold tyrant, Stalin was actually nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice, in 1945 and 1948, for his involvement in bringing the Second World War to a close. He was eclipsed in 1945 by Cordell Hull, an initiator of the United Nations, whereas the second time, in 1948, the prize was not awarded.
Stalin’s pessimistic views on peace, however, are made clear in the following statement attributed to him: “If any foreign minister begins to defend to the death a ‘peace conference’, you can be sure his government has already placed its orders for new battleships and aeroplanes.”
Despite losing out on the Nobel Peace Prize, Stalin did receive other another international accolade, although perhaps not for promoting global harmony; like Churchill, Stalin was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year twice – in 1939 and 1942.
In a story strangely reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein, Stalin ordered leading Russian scientists to develop a half human-half ape hybrid. He is quoted, in state-controlled Moscow papers, as saying “I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.” Accordingly, in 1926, the Politburo put the Soviet Academy of Science to the task of creating a ‘living war machine’.
Stalin’s ape-men, of “immense strength, but with an underdeveloped brain”, were to be utilised in strengthening Russia’s industry and building railroads, in addition to the obvious military applications. The experiments were led by Ilya Ivanov, a prominent Soviet scientist, and expert in animal husbandry. Despite numerous tests involving captured chimpanzees, Ivanov was unsuccessful, leading ultimately to his arrest and exile to Kazakhstan.
“A single death is a tragedy, a million dead is a statistic.” The dictator’s cold logic is summed up in one simple sentence. However, although frequently attributed to him in its various manifestations, there is no evidence that Stalin ever made this statement. The phrase was actually coined by the German writer and pacifist, Erich Maria Remarque.
Apparently Stalin was a big fan of American cowboy films. He would host screenings to friends in his private cinema, which came complete with its own in-house translator.
Stalin was ever wary of pretenders to his throne. Political opponents, as has been mentioned, were invariably removed from power. He was, however, to make one notable exception; Mikheil Gelovani was the one man who Stalin would allow to imitate him. In 1938, Gelovani, a film actor of noble Georgian lineage, impressed Stalin so much when he portrayed the leader in Diadi Gantiadi, that he was chosen as Stalin’s only official screen-representative from then onwards.
Whilst this may have seen as a blessing, in practise, the prominent role held Gelovani back from a blossoming film and theatre career, formerly starring in romances and comedies. His idealised portrayal of Uncle Joe brought a warmth to the character, further accentuating Stalin’s ‘cult of personality’, a self-mythologising exercise, which exerted a dominant presence within the arts, place-names and the annals of history. Gelovani, whilst fortunately not suffering the same fate of many of his leader’s subjects, did die on Stalin’s birthday.
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