Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator, is encased by myth and legend.

Stalin, the ‘Man of Steel’

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.

1. Man of Steel

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”.

2. Man of the Cloth

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.

Stalin, Lenin and Kalinin, 1919

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.

3. At Arm’s Length

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.

4. Suffering for Art

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.

5. The Last Laugh

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.

6. Man of Peace?

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.

7. King Kommunism

Ilya Ivanov in 1927

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.

8. Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

“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.

9. The Wild, Wild East

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.

10. Double Act

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.


WWII Icon Fact-files

Enjoyed these?  Take a look at some other bizarre and intriguing facts compiled by Military Times:

What you didn’t know about Spitfire

Hitler, the vegetarian dictator

Churchill: the statesman, the artist, the gorilla impersonator?

16 Comments

  1. Wilfred Henry
    January 19, 2013 @ 10:57 am

    I believe that Britain (France) were fighting the wrong war.
    Soviet Russia was already the enemy of Britain (The Great British Empire)
    and the enemy of Western-Christian Civilization.
    Western Civilization and Communism were natural enemies.

    Germany under the Leadership of Hitler was not interested in a War with
    Great Britain, Hitler was only interested in taking back German Territory
    Hitler had only one interest in the west The Rhineland which was a part of
    Germany before Versailles Treaty 1919, after that Hitler turned his
    German Army to the East. It was no secret that Hitler had a seething hatred for Communism/Bolshevism and was waiting to wipeout communism in Europe.Hitler had a great admiration for Britain and the British Empire, Hitler saw his chance to expand the borders of Germany and gain territory in the East this new territory was the Soviet Union of Russia. Hitler believed
    that Germany alongside Britain (Germanys “Natural Ally”) could together
    march on The Soviet Union.

    The only question is: “Trust” could Britain call Germany, a “Trusted” ally
    a “Trusted” friend after the war with Russia??? for what it’s worth maybe
    we can use the relationship between the Axis Powers.
    Hitler was a Loyal ally and friend to Italys Duche’ Mussolini. Despite the
    failure of Facist Leader of Italy Mussolini on all fronts, Hitler came to
    the rescue of Mussolini many times throughout the war, up until the very end
    Hiter displayed a great deal of Loyalty to Mussolini despite the fact that
    Mussolini was “dead weight.” In Greece, In North Afrika, Ethiopia, Libya.
    I believe that Britian could have trusted Hitler somewhat to an extent.

    Britain and Germany should have been fighting Stalin and Communsim in
    Soviet Russian rather then fighting eachother. Stalin and The Soviet Union
    was the only real winner of the Second World War.
    (communism spread across Eastern and Central Europe and had more power

    Reply

    • Andreas Philipou
      January 31, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

      ALTHOUGH STALIN WAS NOT TO MENTION A DICTATOR, HE DID NOT WAGE ANY AGRESSIVE WARS UNTILL THE SOVIET UNION WAS ATTACKED. I OFTEN WONDER WHAT OTHER LEADERS WOULD HAVE DONE IN 1945 IF THEY WERE IN HIS SHOES. WOULD THEY HAVE STOPPED IN BERLIN OT CONTINUED ALL THE THE WAY AND FINISH IN FRANCE , SPAIN, GREECE AND ITALY. HE HAD THE TROOPS AND TECHNOLOGY TO DO IT, BUT HE DID NOT. ANDREAS PHILIPOU. CYPRUS.

      Reply

      • Bart
        February 28, 2013 @ 4:22 am

        You are forgetting about Russia invading Poland on September 17,1939 without any provocation.

        Reply

        • Wilma Vissarionevna Dostoyevsky
          March 4, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

          Although there weren’t any types of provocation, there were incentives. Such as expansion of land, resources, influence, military power, influence and communist rule. Furthermore, Poland was once under the rule of Russia during Tsardom so there’s prior History there between the two countries. Also, in early 1939, the USSR entered into negotiations with the UK, France, Poland, and Romania to establish an alliance against Nazi Germany. But these negotiations failed when the Soviet Union insisted that Poland and Romania give Soviet troops transit rights through their territory as part of a collective security agreement. This means maybe their invasion was retaliation. Whatever the case may be, the Soviet Union wouldn’t do something without having underlying legitimate reasons.

          Reply

          • Bart
            March 5, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

            Congratulations to Ms.Dostoyevsky.The “legitimate” reasons mentioned by you,
            are probably the same as these used for premeditated starving to death 6 to 8 millions of
            Ukrainians during “Holodomor” , russian slave labor camps where countless millions died,
            drowning of thousands of political prisoners on barges in White Sea. The list goes on and on…
            Of course ,you can find your “legitimate” reasons to explain them all.
            Keep up the good work , Tavariszcz Dostoyevskaya !

          • Wilma Vissarionevna Dostoyevsky
            March 6, 2013 @ 2:41 am

            Okay BART* congratulations to you too because now you’re bringing up a completely new topic. Those “legitimate” reasons that I was talking about were for the USSR’s reason to invade Poland. It has nothing to do with the Holodomor or the Gulags. Why the hell are you being so sarcastic and condescending wtf. And the reasons for Holodomor are completely different from the invasion of Poland okay. The “LEGITIMATE” reasons for the Famine are subduing any possibility of ukraine nationalisation, increasing economic growth and alleviating any possibility of overthrowing the soviet union. And just so you know the real reasons for Holodomor aren’t even known today. Plus, during the Yalta Conference, Winston Churchill asked Stalin about Holodomor all he said was 10 million have been dealt with because it was necessary. BUT THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH POLAND. What you’re saying doesn’t even make sense. I’m talking about the USSR’s reasons to invade Poland, you’re talking about their reasons for doing an entirely different cause which is to completely starve an entire country for two years. I’m just saying of course there was provocation. NO ONE DOES ANY MOVE IN A WAR, ESPECIALLY IN WORLD WAR, WITHOUT ANY PROVOCATION OR INCENTIVE. That’s stupid and retarded.

            Congratulations to you too for making smart, profound and relevant comments. And yes, do not make any remarks without having “legitimate” reasons, you’re just being presumptuous.

  2. Wilma Vissarionevna Dostoyevsky
    March 4, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

    And as for Wilfred Henry’s comment about how Hitler was not interested in a war with Great Britain, I’m not sure if that’s right because I know for a fact that Winston Churchill specifically said in his speech, the finest hour: “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin…The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.” Hitler saw Britain as a threat and that’s not surprising given the turnout of World War I. Furthermore, George V dissolved ties with his German relatives and changed the name from House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (German name) to the House of Windsor. And as for his view on Communism that is very probable because the USSR and the SS were at terrifying heights of their power at the time. So Hitler WOULD HAVE BEEN VERY THREATENED.

    Reply

    • SCOTT
      June 7, 2013 @ 10:01 am

      TRUE TRUE BUT IF STALIN AND HITLER WOULD HAVE ALLIED AND NOT BETRAYED ONE ANOTHER THINGS WOULD HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT.

      Reply

  3. Tony Smith
    August 9, 2013 @ 11:13 am

    Stalin attacked Finland read the winter war Finland was a democracy

    Reply

  4. THOMAS MC KENNA
    September 4, 2013 @ 1:03 am

    THANK GOD HITLER AND STALIN DID NOT BECOME ALLIES .

    Reply

    • Adam
      April 18, 2014 @ 11:41 am

      Although if they were allies the cold war would possibly have never happened. Assuming the allies won the war still.

      Reply

  5. Winnie Thaw
    April 22, 2014 @ 7:36 pm

    Eventually Hitler and Stalin’s egos would have gotten in the way though. I mean two leaders of very powerful armies, not to mention the fact that they both represent very different ideologies. Nonetheless, let’s just say Hitler didn’t make the dumbest poorest decision in the world and he didn’t attack/betray Stalin. The alliance would have def. lasted. It’d be quite terrifying to see how things turned out though. There’s a chance that the axis powers would have won the war because Stalin was the one (while part of the allies) to break down the Nazis hence without Stalin on their side, the Allies would have definitely been less successful, in addition to having to battle Stalin instead of have him and his Soviet army as allies.

    So say, the axis powers won. With Stalin. The world would be heavily divided between, in this scenario, fascism and communism instead of capitalism and communism. Cold war can still break out. War would have eventually broken out. But in a much more terrifying capacity.

    Reply

  6. Candy Jane Kim
    May 28, 2014 @ 1:14 am

    Stalin was a Sagittarius born on 1878, he was a tyrant, and he was a shorty.

    Reply

  7. Candy Jane Kim
    May 28, 2014 @ 1:15 am

    He was 5’4″ and always seemed to favor communism. “O yeah, Stalin, whatever, shorty!”
    This is Candy, by the way; her hair is blondish brown, and she goes to Marble.

    Reply

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