Joseph Stalin served as the first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee from 1922 until his death in 1953. Stalin assumed the leading role in Soviet politics after Vladimir Lenin's death in 1924, and gradually marginalized his opponents until he had become the unchallenged leader of the Soviet Union. Stalin was son of a cobbler, he studied at a seminary but was expelled for revolutionary activity in 1899. He joined an underground revolutionary group and sided with the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party in 1903. A disciple of Vladimir Lenin, he served in minor party posts and was appointed to the first Bolshevik Central Committee in 1912. He remained active behind the scenes and in exile until the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought the Bolsheviks to power. Having adopted the name Stalin from the Russian war stal, meaning steel, he served as commissar for nationalities and for state control in the Bolshevik government from 1917 to 1923. He was a member of the Politburo, and in 1922 he became secretary-general of the party's Central Committee. After Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin overcame his rivals, including Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinovyev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolay Bukharin, and Aleksey Rykov, and took control of Soviet politics. In 1928 he inaugurated the Five-Year Plans that radically altered Soviet economic and social structures and resulted in the deaths of many millions. In the 1930s he contrived to eliminate threats to his power through the purge trials and through widespread secret executions and persecution. In World War II he signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939, attacked Finland kown as the Russo-Finnish War, and annexed parts of eastern Europe to strengthen his western frontiers. Stalin's absolute insistence upon Soviet domination of Eastern Europe following the war's end was not entirely without justification; after all, Germany had invaded Russia Sanmiguel 3
via Eastern Europe during both World Wars, at a cost of tens of millions of Soviet lives. In Stalin's view, only Soviet control of the nations of Eastern Europe, including East Germany, could ensure that there would not be another repeat. Americans, however, viewed Stalin's power grab in Eastern Europe as proof of Soviet aspirations for world domination, and began to take measures to contain Soviet influence. The Cold War was on. When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Stalin took control of military operations. He allied Russia with Britain and the U.S. at the Tehrn, Yalta, and Potsdam conferences, he demonstrated his negotiating skill. After the war he consolidated Soviet power in eastern Europe and built up the Soviet Union as a world military power. As Stalin neared death, his paranoia intensified. There is evidence that during his last days he was planning another great purge, this one to be directed against Molotov, Beria, Malenkov, and others. Meanwhile, his anti-Semitic campaign continued throughout the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, and as 1952 drew to a close, he hatched a plot to eliminate all Jews from western Russia. This was to begin with the "discovery" of the so-called "Doctors' Plot" his (Jewish) doctors would be accused of collaborating with a foreign power and plotting to kill him. From there, Stalin planned to have leading Jewish Communists "request" resettlement in the east, a request that would of course be granted. The Doctors' Plot was "detected" in January of 1953, and a wave of anti-Semitic hysteria swept the country. But by now Stalin's health was failing rapidly. As late as February 28, he was able to dine with a group that included Beria, Malenkov, and Nikita Krushchev, who would ultimately emerge as his successor. But the next day he suffered a stroke. He wavered between life and death, before finally passing from this life, on March 5, 1953. It was, for Russia and the world, the end of an era.