10 Interesting Facts about Joseph Stalin

Stalin

Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (Jugashvili) was a crucial figure in modern history, taking the reins from Lenin shortly after the Russian Civil War, leading the Soviet Union through its early stages of industrialization, and overseeing the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. He is also known for initiating the Great Purge of 1937 and forced relocation of millions of people, including entire ethnicities, as well as being partially responsible for several devastating famines. In this article, we will go over 10 facts about the Man of Steel that you may not have heard of before.

1. Stalin did not start learning Russian until age 8.

young Stalin
A colorized portrait of young Soso, 1894
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born in 1878 into a poor family in Gori, Georgia, Soso (diminutive for Joseph) grew up speaking exclusively Georgian. In 1886, he failed to enter the Gori Church School due to not knowing any Russian and it took him 2 years to master the language with the help of the priest’s children. He then continued to speak with an accent into adulthood but it grew ever more subtle with time. By the 1930s, Stalin was already struggling to speak Georgian, as he showed difficulty communicating with his own mother. At the end of WWII, he embraced his Russian identity completely and even asked to be portrayed by a Russian actor in propaganda films.

2. In his youth, Stalin was an acclaimed poet Soselo.

Stalin 1902
A colorized portrait of a newly radicalized Stalin, 1902
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Having entered the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary with a scholarship in 1894, young Soso proved to be a bright student, he excelled at everything from mathematics to Church Slavonic singing. During this time, he also tried himself in poetry, writing a total of 6 poems under the name Soselo, which were published in newspapers and later in children’s books. However, political aspirations quickly took over, and by the time Soso left the seminary, he lost interest in writing, as well. As a dictator, Stalin recognized the power of the arts and utilized them for his political purposes.

3. Abandoning priesthood, Stalin went on to be Koba the criminal.

Mugshot of Stalin in 1911
The police were not able to link Stalin to the heist of 1907, but they had other crimes to charge him with regardless, 1911.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At the turn of the century, Tiflis (now Tbilisi) was just as politically turbulent as it was ethnically diverse. Having joined different revolutionary groups, in 1898 Soso also began idolizing the protagonist of “The Patricide” by A. Kazbegi, a Georgian independence fighter Koba. Taking this name as his own and embracing Lenin’s ideas of expropriations, Stalin went on to become a real crime boss, leading both worker strikes and full-on raids, including taking over a steamship in 1906 and attacking a bank stagecoach in 1907, both times acquiring significant sums of cash for Lenin’s causes.

4. Like Lenin, Stalin is said to have once escaped by dressing as a woman.

Joseph Stalin in 1946
Stalin tried to make sure no pictures of him revealed his facial deformities, as in this portrait from a Soviet calendar, 1946.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although there is no consensus on the exact number due to Stalin’s secretive nature, he is often said to have been exiled 6 times in the years before the February Revolution of 1917. But the imperial penal system was nowhere near as harsh as under Stalin himself, and he managed to escape almost every single time, including a particularly interesting episode in 1909, when he escaped from Solvychegodsk dressed as a woman. A similar story happened to Lenin in 1917 when he was forced to shave and put on a wig to escape from prosecution to Finland.

5. Young Stalin was very popular among women.

Stalin with his daughter Svetlana in 1935
After the death of his second wife, Stalin is said to have loved no one but their daughter Svetlana, seen here at age 9, 1935.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It’s a common fact that Stalin was married twice, both times ending with the wives’ premature deaths: the first from typhus and the second by suicide. But what is less known is that as a handsome and well-spoken young man, he had relationships with many other women, producing a great number of offspring.

6. Jugashvili became known as Stalin after producing a Marxist pamphlet.

Stalin in 1915
Having climbed the ranks of the party, Stalin had to spend 4 years in exile before the February Revolution, 1915.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As a chief ally on many issues, Stalin was particularly useful for Lenin’s political goals due to his ethnic background. In 1912, Lenin promoted Koba to the Bolshevik Central Committee and urged him to write an article on the future of the Empire’s minorities. At the same time, Koba helped create the daily Pravda newspaper and adopted the new name Stalin, which was likely chosen as a simple but familiar alias akin to Lenin’s. Stalin’s “Marxism and the National Question” became an instant success and solidified his standing within the party.

7. Stalin slept until lunch and worked late into the night.

Joseph Stalin reading newspapers, from the archives of Evgeny Kovalenko. 1920
Even early in the morning, Stalin sometimes read before going to sleep, 1920.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Much like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Stalin had some extremely unusual sleeping habits. He reportedly was a night owl, going to sleep at 4 in the morning, waking up only at midday, and having his most productive hours late into the evening. This makes it less surprising that Stalin and Churchill once drank together until 3 am during the Moscow Conference of 1942. On a side note, it was a tactic of Stalin’s to get his guests intoxicated enough to let slip any possible secrets that they could be hiding. 

8. Stalin was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Video by British Pathé

Under Stalin, the Soviet Union saw the death of well over 20 million people due to the policies of political and economic repression, which is comparable to the country’s losses in WWII. Thus, it would come as a great shock to many that Stalin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 and 1948 for his war efforts, although he was never awarded one. For the same reasons, he was chosen as Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 1939 and 1942. Just as his threat was underestimated by Bolsheviks, so was it by conventional Western media.

9. As the General Secretary, Stalin tried to resign four times.

Soviet Propaganda poster
Propaganda poster showing flags that read “Greetings to the great Stalin!”, 1936-1940
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Lenin died in 1924, his Testament advised the party to be wary of Stalin’s rising power and support Trotsky instead. He was prepared for it, however, and saved his post by agreeing to its contents and suggesting to step down right away. Then in 1926 and 1927, he wrote to the Sovnarkom Chairman with requests for resignation, likely to identify out potential enemies, and was rejected both times. Years later and months before his death, he tried to resign again in 1952, as if to test the cult of personality he had created.

 10. Stalin might be more popular in Russia now than ever before.

Tomb of Stalin
Tourists and politicians still bring flowers to Stalin’s tomb in front of the Kremlin, 2014.
Credit: Clay Gilliland // CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2019, Joseph Stalin’s approval in Russia exceeded that of Vladimir Putin with an overwhelming majority of Russians considering him a positive figure in Russian history. This is arguably the result of both Soviet nostalgia and years of whitewashing by Putin’s administration. Meanwhile in Georgia, the two Stalins – the great liberator and the mass murderer – live side-by-side. After his statue in Gori was removed in 2010 under the cover of night, a new one was installed in 2013, only to be removed again a few months later.

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