131: The Man from Saqartvelo


Season 3 begins with the story of a young man from Georgia, Joseph Stalin.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 131 - The Soviet Union Part 1 - The Man from Saqartvelo. This episode a big thank you goes out to Steve, Charles, Rashad, and Pedro who have supported the podcast through a donation. I would also like to thank Thad, Michael, Zach, Adi, Tom, Justin, Christopher, Harry, Greg, Brandon, Tristan, and Trina for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, something you can do as well by heading over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Before we get started today I would like to issue a correction, in episode 130 I Sir’d a name incorrectly. David was absolutely correct to point out that I should have said Sir Howard Kennard or Sir Howard instead of Sir Kennard. I will attempt not to commit this mistake again, but I am going to be honest, it might happen again. Thank you listener David for the correction.

This is the first episode of Season 3 of the podcast, with the general theme of this series being the growth of the fighting away from the relatively tight confines of Eastern Europe and out into the rest of Europe and the Mediterranean. Just to give a very brief outline of the content of the next year of episodes. We will start during this episode with a discussion of the Soviet Union during the interwar years, then we will follow the Soviet Red Army in its invasion of Finland in what is better known as the Winter War, then we will shift to the high seas to discuss the first 12 months of the war at sea with primarily the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine facing off in the North Sea and the Atlantic, then focus will shift to the German invasion of Norway before closing out the season with the German invasion of France in May 1940. The first half of 1940 would see the war quickly grow as the German military continued to grow the areas under its control, turning what could have been an isolated conflict in Poland into the Second World War.

But today we begin not with Germany, but with the Soviet Union, which would become Nazi Germany’s greatest enemy, although in 1939 they were friends, because international relations are weird sometimes. Over the next 12 episodes the podcast with cover the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s. It will start with a discussion of Stalin’s life and the political maneuverings of the 1920s before moving onto a discussion of the post-Civil War Red Army. Then we will cover the First Five Year Plan, Agricultural Collectivization, the Second and Third Five Year Plans, Soviet foreign relations, and the Great Purges of the late 1930s, then we will close out this series with a few episodes on the Soviet military on the eve of the Second World War. One thing to always keep in mind when reading sources about the Soviet Union is that throughout most of the 20th century writings about the Soviet Union were very politically charged, or at least existed within a politically charged atmosphere. This is true of those written by Western historians, journalists, and politicians, who often had very strong opinions on Communism, who would often blame the challenges faced by the Soviet Union on the political ideology of Marxism-Leninism. It is also true that many of the contemporary sources from the Soviet government would often amplify the positive aspects of the Soviet political ideologies with the goal of continuing support at home and increasing support abroad. This would begin to change after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and many new sources would become available that had been kept from public view over the previous 70 years. However, especially in English writings from immediately after the collapse there can be some objectivity challenges, based either on lack of sources or based on the fact that for many American scholars, they had spent almost their entire life with the Soviet Union as The Great Evil of the world. The specific period we will be covering during these episodes has the additional challenge of covering the ascension of Stalin to his position of power within the Soviet Union. This period is complicated by several factors: the active antagonism between the Soviet Union and the nations of Western Europe, the cataclysmic event that was the Second World War on the Eastern Front, and then the efforts made towards de-stalinization within the Soviet Union after his death. There is a also just a problem with the sheer amount of things written around the world about this period of Russian history. I think that this quote from Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk and Nora Seligman Favorov is a good explanation as to why: “The literature on Stalin and his era is impossibly vast. Even scholars of Stalinism freely admit to not having seen the half of it. Within this vastness, serious, meticulously documented research coexists with slapdash pen-pushing carelessly cobbled together out of anecdotes, rumors, and fabrications.” While all of this can complicate how the history is portrayed, there is a lot we know, and current research continues to expand on those items. When discussing the Soviet Union during the early 1920s, which is where this episode will begin, it is important to remember that the First World War kicked off almost a decade of suffering, death, and upheaval for the people of Russia. From 1914-1917 between 2.8 and 3.4 million Russians died, that is civilian and military deaths, then during the Civil War, well during the civil war numbers are a lot more fuzzy, but it was up to 10 million depending on how you count the events that were occur in Russia during the Civil War period. Then there was the fact that the second Russian Revolution of 1917, which saw power transition from the moderate Socialists to the more radical Bolsheviks would result in a complete upheaval of the economic, political, and societal structures of Russia. No nation could come out of such a three hit combo like a World War, multiple Revolutions, and a Civil War unscathed, and the newly formed Soviet Union was no different. Over the next 12 episodes we will discuss how the Soviet Union went from what was, realistically, a broken nation, to one that was ready to participate in, and eventually win, one of the largest military campaigns in history after 1941. It is impossible to talk about that transition without discussing the leader of the Soviet Union while it was happening: Joseph Stalin.

When looking at Stalin’s early life we are limited by the fact that the only real information we have about his early years comes from his own memoirs written decades later, some of which is clearly edited for content. I don’t necessarily blame Stalin for this, most autobiographies are not exactly the most objective pieces of literature and they should be analyzed accordingly. But even with these constraints we do know a good amount about his early life, Ioseb Jughashvili was born on December 6, 1878 in the small Georgian town of Gori. Starting from the age of 10 he would spend 6 years in a theological school on the path to becoming a priest, and would be accepted to the Tiflis Theological Seminary at the age of 16. In his early years at the Seminary he was a good student, but his academic record would decline starting in his third year, which he would later claim was due to his becoming a revolutionary. In 1931 he would participate in an interview with a German writer, Emil Ludwig, during which he would state: “In protest against the outrageous regime and the Jesuitical methods prevalent at the seminary, I was ready to become, and actually did become, a revolutionary, a believer in Marxism as a really revolutionary teaching.… For instance, the spying in the hostel. At nine o’clock the bell rings for morning tea, we go to the dining-room, and when we return to our rooms we find that meantime a search has been made and all our chests have been ransacked.” Regardless of the exact cause of his change in mindset, during his final years at the Seminary he would frequently violate rules, and would become more involved in the local Social Democratic movement. Then in May 1899 he would be expelled from the school, with the official reason being that he did not sit for mandatory exams. After his expulsion he would become more and more involved in the local revolutionary scene, and he would join the more radical groups within the Tiflis Social Democratic organization. Part of their radical agenda is that they rejected the idea that the best path forward for socialism was through peaceful and legal means, believing that the only real way to make the changes they desired was through more proactive actions, like strikes and public demonstrations. One thing to keep in mind when thinking about this period of Stalin’s life was the unique nature of life within the border areas of the Russian Empire during this period. Often the areas were not economically advanced, and central authority over the regions was very weak. This could create an atmosphere where groups like those that Stalin became involved with could generate a good amount of local power, making it seductive for young members as a way to belong and be involved in what seemed like world changing ideas.

The actions of Stalin and the groups that he belonged to would eventually result in his arrest in 1902, he would stay in prison for about a year and a half before being sent to Siberia for a number of months. When he returned from this first stint in exile, he would begin to rise up the ranks within the revolutionary groups, partially due to a wave of arrests that would sweep through the area. There was some suspicion that Stalin was himself a double agent, with informants to the government being one of the primary ways the revolutionaries during this time would find themselves in prison. However, there does not appear to be any firm proof that he was actually an informant, and if he was his multiple stints in prison and exile to Siberia seem like an interesting way to utilize an informant. Regardless of any suspicions placed upon him, he would gain greater power if only due to the lack of other options. Looking at the bigger picture, during his first period of exile a critical change had occurred in the Russian Social Democratic Party, and this would be the Bolshevik and Menshevik split that would occur that would be so critical to the revolutionary and civil war period, with the two groups being on opposite sides of the October Revolution. In June 1907 one of the more famous events of this period, at least in the history of the Russian socialist revolutionary groups, would occur when a shipment of money, around 250,000 rubles, was seized by a group of Russian revolutionaries led by Stalin’s friend Simon Ter-Petrosian, better known as Kamo. The exact nature of Stalin’s involvement is up for debate. For obvious reasons, given the well known nature of this revolutionary event, Stalin would amplify his involvement, but there is not a lot of evidence that Stalin was actively involved in the planning and actual robbery. It seems clear that Stalin knew about what was happening, and that he would have concealed the planning from other local party officials who would not have supported such a bold action. But beyond this, still important, role, Stalin’s involvement appears to have been limited.

In the years before the First World War Stalin would spend additional time in exile, starting in the Spring of 1910. Officials wanted to send him to Siberia for five years, but he was able to plea for leniency which would result in just over a year spent in Siberia. After he returned from exile once again he would spend about a year and half continuing with his revolutionary activities, and it would be during this period that he would reach his pre-war peak of power. In 1912 he would become a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, but then in June 1913 he was once again arrested and once again sent into exile. He would remain in exile for almost 4 years in the small Siberian town of Kureika and would not return from exile until the February revolution of 1917. Before his exile, Stalin was one of the more important Bolshevik leaders because he was, unlike many others, still in Russia. During the prewar period Stalin and Kamenev would be crucial because they were still in Russia and could lead the party from Russia, while others like Lenin were in foreign exile. During this period Kamanev and Stalin controlled the critical Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, which was published out of Petrograd. Before Stalin’s arrest, they would advocate for a more moderate agenda during these years in the hopes of increasing the general cooperation between the various socialist parties in Russia during this time. Stalin would maintain this more moderate viewpoint during his time in exile, and it would only be after he returned from exile that this would begin to change as he became a devoted follower of Lenin, and his far more radical views for the path of revolution in Russia. In early 1917 when he returned he would again take up his position within the party, on the Central Committee and as the editor of Pravda. These were important roles, but throughout the revolutionary summer of 1917 Stalin was not on the level of the true leaders of the events that were occurring. When compared with Trotsky, who was so influential during his public speaking and other events, Stalin’s role was a bit more limited but still important. This is one of those periods of Stalin’s life that is framed many different ways depending on which history you are reading, especially during the fighting for power that would occur between Trotsky and Stalin in the years after Lenin’s death. The truth was that Stalin was a leader of the party, but he was one among many.


After the successful Bolshevik revolution Stalin would be put in charge of Tsaritsyn, later to be renamed Stalingrad, as well as put in command of all of the forces of the North Caucasus Military District. This was a very important position during the Civil War period because it was in southern Russian and in Ukraine that the the Bolsheviks would face their greatest challenges. It would be during this time that Stalin would meet some of the men that will play an important role in his later rise to power, and whose names we will be mentioning several more times during these episodes, like Klimet Voroshilov who would be a Red Army commander who would find his way to Tsaritsyn after retreating from the German forces advancing into Ukraine. Just a few months after Stalin arrived, Tsaritsyn was in a very dangerous situation, with the White forces in Southern Russia reaching their strongest point during the Civil War. It would be during this period that Stalin would launch a counterrevolutionary action within the city, arresting many former army officers, business leaders, and sometimes just ordinary citizens all in the name of preventing information from the city from finding its way to the Russian White leaders. These actions were not necessarily unique among the Bolshevik leaders during the Civil War period, and there would be multiple waves of mass arrests as the leadership of the revolution attempted to solidify its position within the areas of Russia that it controlled. The threat to Tsaritsyn would eventually pass, although not because of the arrests, and instead simply because of the inability of the White Russian forces to launch a real offensive against the city, or even to craft a policy that would provide the white movement with widescale support throughout the countryside. Throughout 1919 and early 1920 Stalin would continue to control many aspects of the Civil War in southern Russia, working to reduce the power and resistance of the White forces that were centered on Crimea. Then in the summer of 1920 he would be leading the Southwestern Front during the Soviet-Polish War. Stalin had to deal with two problems during this time, the first was a resurgent White offensive that attempted to move out of Crimea and to take advantage of the fighting in Poland, this offensive was relatively easily dealt with. The second was an advance on Lvov in support of the Soviet forces that were advancing on Warsaw. Stalin put a lot of focus on Lvov and attempting to capture the city using the First Cavalry Army , but the city would remain in Polish hands. An order would then be given for the FIrst Cavalry Army to move north and west to join directly with the attack on Warsaw, and even though this order was delivered to Stalin it was never acted on. Instead he stated that he needed them for a renewed attack on Lvov and therefore he could not transition them to another army, because of this he refused to sign the order. In retrospect this would be a poor time for Stalin to make such a move, which seems to have been at least partially caused by his desire to amplify his own successes. This was because of the complete disaster that the advance on Warsaw would turn into, with the Red Army forces defeated on the outskirts of the city before they were forced to retreat hundreds of kilometers to the east in disarray. Would the First Cavalry Army have prevented this from occurring? Probably not, but it was more about the principle of the matter, and just a few days later Stalin would be recalled from his position of military leadership. After a very contentious Politburo meeting on September 1st, during which Trotsky made it clear with his actions that he was the one leading the Red Army Stalin would resign from his military positions. The disagreements about the actions of Trotsky and Stalin and Poland would then be made public at the 9th Conference of the Russian Community Party just a few days later. At the conference Lenin also took Trotsky’s side, rejecting the blame that Stalin placed on Trotsky’s actions, and instead taking personal responsibility for some of the mistakes that were made that led to the disaster in front of Warsaw. This Lenin becoming so directly involved and coming to the defense of Trotsky’s actions, there was little that Stalin could do. The outcome of the events in Poland would not be disastrous for any of the major Bolshevik leaders, although it would be the end of their dreams of worldwide revolution, a revolution that they hoped to kickstart by advancing through Poland and spreading the Bolshevik revolution to Germany. But it is a good example of many of the challenges that would be faced by the Bolshevik, renamed Communist, leaders in the years after the Civil War. There were many strong personalities, each with their own ambitions and their own set of beliefs on the best course for the revolution. It was only the personal power of Lenin, and his position as the unquestionable leader of the revolution, that would keep all of the other personalities in check during this period

The post Civil War period would in many ways amplify the disagreements between the various Communist leaders due to some of the decisions that were made around trying to transition the Soviet Union from a wartime state to a post-war society. One of the most important was the transition to the New Economic Policy in 1921. During the Civil War the Soviet economy had been ran on what would be later called “war communism” which completely did away with many features of the capitalist economy of the tsarist period. The New Economic Policy changed some of these policies, and brought back some features of capitalism, which was a very divisive issue among the Communist leaders. For all of its challenges, war communism was in many ways a more pure example of socialist economic systems, removing money, personal property, and other capitalist ideas. But in an economy absolutely destroyed by almost 10 years of war, it was challenging to maintain this structure and start to heal some of the deep wounds suffered by the people of Russia. The New Economic Policy tried to exist within a middle ground, where specific pieces of the capitalist economies were brought back, but most of the economy would still be under state control. An example of what was allowed as a more capitalist setup in agriculture, with Russian farmers still owning their property and its products which would then be sold much like it had been for centuries. The Soviet Union would also begin to rejoin the world economy with trade agreements put in place with many nations. Even if he did not agree with these moves, Stalin would not openly oppose them, as some Communist leader did, putting his loyalty to Lenin above his economic feelings. Stalin would make what was seen as an interesting move in 1921 by shifting his role from the relatively unimportant areas of the nationalities commissariat and the Workers and Peasants inspectorate and instead taking on the running of the Central Committee apparatus. In early 1922 his role would gain the name of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party. This would turn out to be brilliant move on Stalin’s part because it gave him two powers that would turn out to be incredibly influential and which would cement his place of power within the party. The first was the ability to set the agenda for all Politburo meetings, which allowed him to control what was discussed, and the second being the leadership role in personnel matters. This second power did not mean that Stalin could exile Trotsky or something like that, but it did give him the ability to start packing the lower echelons of the Party with people loyal to him and this would be pivotal in the power struggles that would follow Lenin’s death. Throughout 1922 Stalin’s position was very strong due to his new position as well as his continued good relations with Lenin. As an example of how strong this relationship was, it would be Stalin that Lenin asked to get poison for him during a serious illness in May 1922. Stalin would not get the poison, and Lenin would recover. But then later in the year Lenin started to pull away from Stalin and to even begin to criticize Stalin a bit in public. This was likely due to the fact that Stalin, who was at this point working closely with Zinoviev and Kamenev against Trotsky, was growing in power to the point that Lenin was becoming concerned. This was a problem of Lenin’s own making, as he had worked to reduce Trotsky’s influence on the party, but now Lenin and Stalin would begin to have disagreements. The key issue would revolve around the “Georgian Affair” which involved the actions of party members within the Transcausacian Federation, that being Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The key point of disagreement were the actions of the leader of the party in that region, Ordzhonikidze, a friend of Stalin. Stalin wished to protect his friend and his leadership position while Lenin sought to remove him, turning it into a bit of a power struggle. Lenin’s plan was to launch an open attack against Stalin at the Twelfth Party Congress in March 1923, with the hope that Trotsky would collaborate with him to discredit the other Communist leader. On March 6th Lenin would write a note that was given to Kamenev to deliver to the Georgian Bolshevik party representatives in person, it read “With all my heart I am following your case. I am outraged by Ordzhonikidze’s rudeness and the connivances of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky. I am drafting a memorandum and speech for you.”