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The Early Years of Joseph Stalin

Dr. Thomas Swan has PhDs in physics and psychology and is an avid student of world history.

Stalin's family. Joseph (aged 16) with his father, Vissarion (left, date unknown), and mother, Ketevan Geladze (right, 1892).

Stalin's family. Joseph (aged 16) with his father, Vissarion (left, date unknown), and mother, Ketevan Geladze (right, 1892).

Joseph Stalin was born with the name "Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili" on the December 18th, 1878. His modest home was in Gori, a city in eastern Georgia (see map below). Georgia had been under Imperial Russian rule since 1801 and would eventually become part of Stalin's Soviet Union.

Stalin's father, Vissarion, was a cobbler with his own business in Gori. He was fluent in Russian, Georgian, Armenian, and Turkish. In 1872 he married Stalin's mother, the 17 year old Ketevan Geladze; a deeply religious, peasant serf.

The couple's first two sons died shortly after birth, causing Vissarion to develop a drinking problem. When Iosif (Stalin) was born with a number of birth defects, including two conjoined toes, Vissarion's alcoholism may have been to blame.

Stalin was born in Gori (red dot), in Georgia (green), in the Tsarist Russian Empire.

Stalin was born in Gori (red dot), in Georgia (green), in the Tsarist Russian Empire.

Stalin's Violent Childhood

By the time Stalin was born in 1878, both of his parents had deep-seated plans for how he should mature. Ketevan wanted him to become a Bishop, while Vissarion wanted him to become a cobbler. The disagreement fuelled Vissarion's alcoholism further, leading to the failure of his business and the breakdown of the marriage.

With less income, the family frequently moved to cheaper and more squalid accommodation. Here, Vissarion beat his wife and son regularly, and some scholars have proposed that this abuse led to Stalin's unusually cruel proclivities in later life. When a ten year old Stalin was accepted into the Gori Theological school, Vissarion broke the windows in a nearby tavern and assaulted a policeman. He was exiled from Gori and took up work in a shoe factory in Tblisi (the capital city of Georgia).

Stalin's father repeatedly returned to abduct him from school, forcing him to work in the shoe factory. However, Ketevan had allies within the Church and school who managed to expedite his safe return. Stalin excelled at school, becoming a talented choir singer and a capable poet. He sung at weddings and his Georgian poetry gained him some notoriety.

Despite the violent and largely lawless surroundings of Gori, and the frequent brawls with other children, Stalin graduated first in his class. However, his childhood was punctuated by violence and misfortune. His face was deeply scarred by smallpox at the age of 7 and, in later life, he had photographs altered to hide his disfigurement. The beatings from his father also became so severe that he sometimes had blood in his urine. Around the age of 10, his left arm became disfigured through illness, fighting, or abuse, causing it to be two inches shorter than the right. Finally, at 12 years, Stalin was seriously injured in a collision with a horse-drawn carriage, requiring months of rehabilitation.

Stalin in a 1902 police record (aged 23).

Stalin in a 1902 police record (aged 23).

Stalin's Revolutionary Leanings

After his school graduation, Stalin entered the Orthodox Seminary of Tiflis; a spiritual training institution. At 16 years of age, these were formative and rebellious years in Stalin's life. He quickly objected to the strict discipline and ascetic lifestyle within the Seminary. He also became an atheist and asked his friends to call him `Koba', the name of an outlaw he had read about in a banned book.

Under instruction from the Tsarist regime, the Seminary promoted Russian culture and taught all classes in the Russian language. This sickened Stalin who had enjoyed writing Georgian poetry. He began to read Marxist and other revolutionary material that was banned by the institution. By the time he was 20, Stalin had joined the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, which would later split into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.

Stalin in 1911 (aged 32) in a record from the Tsarist secret police.

Stalin in 1911 (aged 32) in a record from the Tsarist secret police.

Possibly in a bid to deter their increasingly nationalistic Georgian students, the Seminary raised tuition fees shortly before the final exams, meaning that Stalin had to leave in 1899 without graduating. He obtained a low-payed job with the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory, which gave him time to read the works of Vladimir Lenin. His subsequent admiration for Lenin eventually led to him choosing the Bolsheviks over the Mensheviks when the Labour Party split.

At the Observatory (and at his later job in an oil refinery) he organized strikes and demonstrations for the workers. This attracted the scrutiny of the Tsar's secret police, who came to arrest Stalin, although he spotted them waiting to ambush him at the Observatory and evaded capture. After this close call, he retreated from public life to become a full time revolutionary; using "Koba" as his nickname (the name of a heroic rebel from a book he read).

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Joseph, or "Koba," eventually changed his last name to Stalin (meaning `steel'). After being elected to represent the Bolsheviks in Georgia, Stalin worked his way into Lenin's inner circle and, when Lenin died, Stalin seized power and began eliminating his competitors.

Stalin in 1949 (aged 70). He signed numerous death warrants during his tenure.

Stalin in 1949 (aged 70). He signed numerous death warrants during his tenure.

What Made Stalin So Evil?

Joseph Stalin went on to massacre around 30 million people, including many of his peers, allies, and competitors in government. He starved entire regions of the Soviet Union during the famine of the 1930s, purged huge swathes of the population, and forced others into labor camps. This has led many people to describe Stalin as an evil man, but can his childhood be blamed?

There can be no definitive answer, but there are a number of consistencies between Stalin's early years and the upbringings of other individuals who've had a penchant for cruelty. An abusive childhood, characterized by severe anxiety, fear, and helplessness is a common precursor to psychopathic or antisocial behavior in later life. Strict discipline, frequent relocation, parental separation, and violence among one's peers are also linked to later problems. These contextual markers were all present in Stalin's childhood.

The Holodomor was a terrible famine that Stalin inflicted upon Ukraine in the 1930s.

The Holodomor was a terrible famine that Stalin inflicted upon Ukraine in the 1930s.

Stalin's mother was beaten by his father and it is possible that his mother's tendency to seek comfort from God caused her to recommend the same for Joseph. This may have reduced his access to a parent who could offer sympathy and understanding during times of need. Similarly, the violent brawling between Stalin and his peers would have deprived him of a sympathetic ear elsewhere. Although speculative, it should be noted that Adolf Hitler also had a deeply religious mother and this may be a research avenue that deserves more attention.

It is also interesting how the Tsarist regime cultivated Stalin's opposition to them. If they had not inculcated a Russian curriculum at Stalin's school, he may have become a priest or a poet. Without any prior attachment to Marxism, their actions pushed Stalin towards anti-Tsarist, revolutionary writings. Despite this, Stalin held down a respectable job after leaving school. He only became a full time revolutionary when the secret police attempted to ambush him. Without the need to go underground, Stalin may never have attained a position of power within the Bolshevik movement.


  • Conquest, Robert (1991). Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York and London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-016953-9.
  • Deutscher, Isaac (1966). Stalin (revised ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Montefiore, Simon Sebag (2007). Young Stalin. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-85068-7.
  • Service, Robert (2004). Stalin: A Biography. London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-333-72627-3.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Thomas Swan


Sue Minot from Wellington, New Zealand on January 16, 2016:

Have you read the two biographies on Stalin by Simon Montefiore? ("Young Stalin" and "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar"? If not, then I recommend the first of these in particular to you -it offers some compelling insights into the events in Stalin's childhood and young adult years that may have led him down a path of murderous evil after he came to power. Anyway, a nice blog, well done :)

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 06, 2013:

Thanks GoForTheJuggler. I'm glad my work has provided you with some useful information. Now you can credit me on your screenplay!! Just kidding.

I've always found Stalin to be a fascinating individual too. There's something very cold, dark, and slightly mysterious about him. I would say his main personality trait in adulthood was paranoia. He basically had all his competitors killed. A real monster, but decidedly unique.

Joshua Patrick from Texas on October 06, 2013:

Great hub - I am currently writing a screenplay about Stalin/Russia and WW2! This info will definitely help me get inside his head - voted up and across!

Klevi M Fusha on July 22, 2013:

Yes, I absolutely agree. I apologize for what I said earlier as I didn't think it through enough. "Savior" is definitely a propaganda word as well. What I truly meant to say is "a historical portrayal from an author who sympathizes with the socialist or communist cause and might point out certain factual details that are left out of most so-called 'historical' works."

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on July 22, 2013:

On the "evil" remark, I have edited the section to make it clearer what I meant. Personally, I don't think of anyone as "evil" in the absolute sense. The subtitle can remain the same for brevity and because it is now explained in the following paragraph, avoiding ambiguity. I realize it wasn't clear before. Thank you for your input.

What else do you think is biased? Specific examples please.

On the propaganda issue, you asked me to read something that "describes Stalin from the savior and great leader perspective." Forgive me for thinking you meant a piece of leftist propaganda. After all, if you think evil is a propagandist word, shouldn't "savior" be too?

Klevi M Fusha on July 22, 2013:

As much as I might agree with your last comment, your hub being labeled as biased is not a matter of opinion, it's a fact. Words such as "evil" or "bad" should be left out of historical works. And I never advised you to read left-wing "propaganda". I advised you to read a factual, historical portrayal from a communist or socialist author. You might learn some facts that will blow your mind away, and it will also help get a clearer understanding of the whole picture.

All I'm trying to say is that there are still millions around the world who praise Stalin. All of these people's beliefs are not based on the fruits of their imagination. You claim not to read right-wing propaganda, but you have created a piece of work which can easily come off as such.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on July 22, 2013:

Thank you for your comment. It's your opinion that the hub is biased. This is something you've presented as a fact. Despite your insinuations, I am very condemnatory of other mass murdering regimes such as those of Harry Truman (1945-53) and George Bush. I have written extensively on American crimes, as well as anti-communist propaganda in the States. None of this stops Stalin from also being a deplorable human being when all the evidence is considered, and none of it has anything to do with this hub. Despite my leftist leanings, I refuse to read biased left wing propaganda in the same way that I refuse to read biased right wing propaganda. If I'd bought into right-wing propaganda, I'd be condemning Lenin, Trotsky, and Cuban communism. Yet, I have nothing but praise for them. I condemn Stalin for the atrocities he committed.

Klevi M Fusha on July 22, 2013:

And I named a few recent examples in order to familiarize you with what I consider propaganda. There are many far more accurate historical examples, such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Klevi M Fusha on July 22, 2013:

What makes me think you haven't looked at the leftist material? Your Hub. Well, you might have glanced at it. I meant actually studying a piece of literature that describes Stalin from the "savior" and "great leader" perspective. It might have prevented you from writing such a biased article. A more suitable title for your Hub might have been "My personal thoughts on the early years of Joseph Stalin". At the very least include a text section at the very end which separates fact from fiction and personal opinion.

While I agree with the notion that killing millions of people isn't propaganda, portraying only one side of the story and labeling only one specific group of mass murderers as "evil" is definitely a propaganda act. For example, approximately a week before the Boston Marathon bombing happened, 11 innocent children were killed by US drones in Afghanistan - some of which were under the age of 5. You can find that story here

We all remember the countless times the Boston bombing was labeled a terrorist act and the weeks during which the news channels were filled with such reports, yet I cannot recall a single report on the other tragic event. This is what I consider propaganda. And a very similar, if not identical approach is taken here in the US towards former communist leaders. They are all portrayed to be the living manifestation of evil, while American Presidents are simply lifted to a pedestal. Over 100,000 Iraqi and Afghan citizens have been killed since the beginning of the war, yet all Americans are able to remember is the 9/11 victims. I am not a communist by any means, but there is something very wrong with this picture. Patriotism is honorable, but blind nationalism is the same virtue that was portrayed by the Nazis.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on July 21, 2013:

You misunderstand me, though I could have been clearer. When I say "evil", I'm referring to the billions of people who consider mass murder to be an evil act. While I don't believe in absolutes, many do. However, Stalin may be the closest person to that absolute that I've seen. Yes, brawls are common, and Stalin had them prolifically during childhood. What's your point about that? I haven't made a conclusion there. What makes you think I haven't looked at leftist material before making the conclusions that I have? Killing millions of people isn't propaganda either. Those people aren't in limbo because of some right-wing rag.

Klevi M Fusha on July 21, 2013:

I like your style and your hubs in general, but this one is not one of your best. Almost everything you've stated on this Hub is nothing more than personal opinion, yet you presented them as facts. Words such as "evil", "bad", "violent" should be left out of biographical works. Brawls with other children are a common happening among all children. Also, while you may think of Stalin as "evil" or "bad", millions around the world still regard him as a "hero", a "savior". What makes you right and what makes them wrong? American presidents have initiated wars that have caused millions of people to lose their lives. However, none of them are labeled as "evil". This Hub is the pure reproduction of the propaganda that you have been exposed to your whole life. There are two sides to every story and the truth usually lies somewhere in between. Do some "leftist" research and try to get a glimpse at their historical portrayal of this individual before you make any conclusions.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on July 19, 2013:

Hitler hated communism, so whoever had taken charge after Lenin's death would have been at war with Germany. However, would another leader had made the pact with Germany that Stalin did? If Russia had pledged to enter the war earlier, Germany may have been defeated or deterred much earlier.

I agree that few of the revolutionaries cared much about Russia. I think some genuinely cared about the cause of communism though - Trotsky and Lenin in particular. Lenin would have seen the war as an opportunity to bring Russia closer to Britain, their trade unions, and the Labour party. We could have had a very different world without Stalin in it. A better one in all likelihood.

I've written about Vlad Tepes, and I wouldn't say his life in the Ottoman court caused his cruelty. His nationalism, religion, and familial ties would have been enough. I agree that environment is one factor from many.

Crin Forbes from Michigan on July 16, 2013:

Everything is relative...

The man was a very complex personality and he probably thought Andy Gove that "Only the paranoid survive".

My point was not that he wanted to be popular with his friends bringing Georgia down. He did the same thing with any problem republic. That was his way of accomplishing things. The truth of the matter is that he helped in Hitler's downfall a lot, and he sacrificed a lot of lives to defend his country.

Frankly, I don't believe that any of the revolutionaries cared about the Russian people. They just used them as a took in achieving their goals.

Lenin did not start his fight supporting the Russian people. He had a personal vendetta with the establishment, the tsar in particular his brother got involved in a botched assassination attempt and he was hung. Lenin was an intelligent man, and he knew how to stir emotions. WWI was a big help also. He picked on opportunity of bad treatment of the soldiers and their family.

I don't think that Stalin had Lenin's intellect, however he was a pragmatic guy who could get things done.

At first I believed the fairy tales, however growing up and reading prohibited literature for us over there, I started to piece things together and the perspective changed.

You know, I like to compare things. In one of the Romanian provinces in the fourteen hundreds there was this king, Vlad Tepes, who grew up as a hostage for his father in Istanbul and Anatolia. He was educated according to the latest cultural standards of his time. Yet, the guy turned into a psychopath. That is why he entered history as Dracula a few years later... Everyone said that his cruelty was mostly nurtured and supported by his living at the Ottoman Court. He was a hostage, however he was treated as a royal. It is well-known that cruelty was the norm in Turkey at that time.

Yet, a couple of hundred years later, another ruler from the Present Romania, Moldova at that time grew up in the same conditions, hostage for his father at the Ottoman Court, Dimitrie Cantemir. Eventually he became the ruler of the country for a while, yet he did not display any of the cruelty or thirst for blood as Vlad Tepes did. As a matter of fact he was a man of letters and an intellectual of international fame for his time.

The environment can influence development, however only if the person shows proper psychological conditions.

The man could have learned a lot from his mother's treatment by his father. Yet, he had never been physically abusing his wife, yet he drove her to suicide...

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on July 16, 2013:

Thanks for commenting forbcrin. We all change a great deal between the ages of 16 and 25. If he was a Georgian Nationalist at 16, that could easily have dissipated within a few years. For one, his apparent idol (Lenin) was Russian, and so were the other revolutionaries he looked up to. He would have wanted their acceptance, and this should have reduced his anti-Russian feeling. It would have helped him realize that the Tsarist regime was to blame for what Russia was doing. Once Russia freed themselves from it, of course his love for the country grew. Once he achieved power in Russia, he would have needed to appear as Russian as possible. If this meant putting down Georgian nationalists, I think that would have come easily for him. Communism had become a greater goal to him by that time, and any Georgian attempts to jeopardize that were not welcome.

Furthermore, it seemed as if he had become intoxicated with power. He was paranoid to the point of killing his close friends and colleagues. I doubt freedom for Georgia was high on his agenda for very long. As a result, he saw his fellow revolutionaries as a threat to his power.

In keeping with that, I don't think he remained a devout communist either. I think he did more to damage communism that anyone. Power was his religion. The stuff about him being a Tsarist agent is a little speculative though.

The world would be a much better place if he was never born; or that horse-drawn carriage had killed him. Communism was turned from an interesting theory about freeing the workers, to an insidious threat against the free world. Truman's response was the Truman Doctrine, beginning half a century of American interference around the world, thwarting free democracy in exchange for US-friendly despots.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on July 16, 2013:

Thanks for commenting rose-the-planner. I agree that there are many factors involved. An abusive childhood appears to make a contribution in a number of cases, but you're right that it's not the `be all and end all'.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on July 16, 2013:

Thanks for commenting and sharing pstraubie! You are of course right, no upbringing can justify what he did. I think the revolutionary environment he was in provided the opportunity for psychopaths like himself to kill many people. There are many factors that can make someone a psychopath, and an abusive childhood is a common one. It think it's an unconscious effect, and not something that makes the violence seem permissible. I know how you feel about how easily something could have been done. It seems as if so many factors came together to push him down that path.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on July 16, 2013:

Thanks Elias, that's kind of you to say!

Crin Forbes from Michigan on July 15, 2013:

I liked your posting, and I have to give you credit for a nice style and some research done, although I have to credit you for some fiction also.

Stalin was a smart guy, however he was a bad person. He was one of those who used his intelligence to get his goals no matter what.

I don't think that the main factor in his hate against the tsars was the forced introduction of Russian in Georgia. Actually the tsars tried to assimilate Georgia long before Stalin was born. Georgia was assimilated after he took over, and killed the local element by either exile or force moving them to other areas of Russia, while bringing in other nationalities. The one who really sent people to the gallows for not speaking Russians were not the tsars, but Stalin...

He did not really care about Russian being forced on him. He did not really hate the tsar. As a matter of fact, surviving documents are irrefutable proof that he was a tsarist informant and he sent to exile a lot of his underground fellow revolutionary. There are even rumors that he was not stranger to Lenin's death.

The man had big goals, and after all he accomplished them. Peter the Great started the Russian Empire, Stalin finished building it. I think that it is important to notice that it all came down in ruins only thirty some years after his passing...

He was a very good judge of characters and he knew how to read people. He was a master at empire building, but he was not a humanitarian. We see these days that building empires in not as nice as we would like to believe.

The guy was a monster and I was born under his ruling, although I am not a Russian or ever lived in the Soviet Russia or its republics. Yet he managed to spread his hands over most of the Europe, and he did it while the Allies were getting pills against frustration.

I don't really liked him, but he was good at what he did. One thing he accomplished was opening Russians to the future. The feudalism in Russia came down much later than the rest of Europe, and it was only due to him.

I don't think he had any kind of regard for the Peoples he ruled over, but he understood that Russia was ripe to move into modern times.

Would the world be better if he was not born? I don't know. I am not sure anyone is irreplaceable, but even if it took longer would have been probably marked by less human sacrifice.

Besides, we like to think that Russians did not like Stalin, because logical people can't like him. Well, although he is not Stalin, Putin is a combination of evil thought from Stalin's kind, with some modern tendencies, and although they should not, Russians over all trust and like Putin...

rose-the planner from Toronto, Ontario-Canada on July 15, 2013:

This was an excellent and insightful article on the early years of Stalin. Good, bad or indifferent we are all products of our environments. . Although I feel for Stalin's miserable upbringing, as I would for any child, and the abuse that his mother endured, I believe his evil nature stemmed from something entirely unrelated. For sure his upbringing contributed, however, there are many children that are raised in horrible environments but do not grow up to cause the slaughter of so many people as he did. It makes me really wonder. Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 15, 2013:

So much I did not know. I know I should not feel this way...but a lousy childhood does not give someone permission to become unhinged and cause the death of millions. You know as well as I do there are millions on our planet who had an equally horrific upbringing and did not turn out he did.

O, if only something could have been done to stop him before he did what he did. No one knows what causes men like Stalin and Hitler to become the monsters I believe they were. Angels are on the way to you...well done...voted up and shared. ps

Elias Zanetti from Athens, Greece on July 15, 2013:

Interesting and well written account of the early years of Stalin's life, Thomas. Nice hub!

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