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Josef Stalin was born in Georgia as Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. The name Stalin, which he adopted later, means 'steel'. He gave his name to the city of Stalingrad (previously Tsaritfin, and now called Volgograd), and to Stalinism. In the west, he was nicknamed 'Uncle Joe'.
He joined the Bolshevik Party in 1903, and became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1922.
Lenin's death in 1924 led to a long power struggle. By 1929, Josef Stalin controlled the Soviet Union. He built up industry and merged tiny farms into huge collectives. Industry probably developed faster than at any other time in Russian history. Posters showing Stalin among peasants promoted his agricultural plans. On the huge, state-owned farms peasants were paid wages. Other farms were owned by peasants collectively. Most peasants resisted giving up land and livestock and millions were shot or sent to labour camps. The chaos, and government seizure of grain, led to famine and millions of deaths in the early 1930s.
Five-year plans demanded vast increases in production in heavy industry (coal, steel, and machinery). Workers' lives were hard, and conditions sometimes dangerous. Victory celebrations were held when quotas were surpassed, but workers who did not perform well or criticized the system were punished as criminals. Production of everyday goods was relatively neglected.
Stalin's regime is one of history's starkest examples of totalitarianism, in which the state has total control over almost all aspects of society, with the result that citizens have hardly any individual freedom. Stalin had millions of opponents imprisoned or killed, including Leon Trotsky, who was murdered in Mexico in 1940 by one of Stalin's agents. Stalin's efforts to remove all possible enemies peaked in the purges of 1935-38. Intimidated people denounced neighbours as traitors to show loyalty to the state. Famous Communists were forced to admit to crimes in public 'show' trials. Over ten million people were sent to labour camps or executed. In total, Stalin's actions are believed to have resulted in the deaths of more than 50 million.
In 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression Nazi-Soviet pact. The pact also partitioned Poland between Germany and the USSR. Germany invaded Poland on 1 September, starting World War II. Norway, Switzerland and Finland declared their neutrality; France and Britain gave Germany an ultimatum to leave Poland. On 3 September they declared war on Germany. The USSR invaded Poland from the east. In a period known as the 'Phoney War' everyone waited for something to happen. On 30 November the USSR attacked Finland.
Stalin was taken by surprise when Germany invaded in 1941. Hitler's troops came very close to Moscow, but were pushed back by cold, hunger, and the bravery of Soviet troops: millions of them died on the eastern front. Despite the enormous economic cost of the war and the deaths of 20 million Russians, Stalin's military and diplomatic skills expanded the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence deep into eastern Europe.
At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the 'Big Three' Allied powers, represented by their leaders Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, decided to divide Germany into four zones after the war. These zones were to be occupied by troops from Britain, the USA, the USSR and France. This division was confirmed on 2 August 1945 at the Potsdam Conference.
Stalin went on to preside over the beginnings of the Cold War. In 1956, his successor Nikita Khrushchev denounced him and his 'cult of personality'.
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