Stalin, Joseph Vissaronovich

(1878–1953)
   Born into the family of a drunken cobbler, Stalin was educated in a Russian Orthodox seminary. Expelled for reading banned material, he drifted into Marxist revolutionary circles. As a youthful revolutionary, Stalin worked in the Bolshevik underground and may have been co-opted by the Okhrana. What is certain is that he was at home with the most extreme and violent members of the party, some of whom were implicated in bank robberies.
   Stalin, unlike other Old Bolsheviks, sought power through key administrative posts. As the Communist Party’s general secretary, he served as its chief administrative officer, assigning people to key party and police posts. As general secretary in the early 1920s, Stalin built contacts with the Cheka through his role as overseer of the party’s personnel directorate, and from 1924 he used the service to keep track of his political opponents. Crucial to Stalin’s defeat of his rival Leon Trotsky was his ability to use the security service to harass and disrupt his opponent’s political movement.
   During his three decades in power, Stalin micromanaged the security services, paying particular attention to personnel appointments and assignments. To ensure the loyalty of the leaders of the service, he used as his watchdog the Special Department within the Communist Party Central Committee. Using information from this department, he frequently reorganized and purged the security service. Stalin encouraged security officers to write to him with their complaints and denunciations of colleagues and superiors. Stalin replaced and executed senior officers for rumors of immorality and financial impropriety as well as political subversion.
   Beginning in the early 1930s, Stalin urged the party leadership to use the secret police against dissidents inside the party. Following the murder of Sergei Kirov on 1 December 1934, Stalin ordered the institution of draconian laws and then moved to replace Genrykh Yagoda with Nikolai Yezhov as chief of the NKVD. Yezhov brutally used the NKVD against all real and potential dissident elements in the party and Soviet society. In 1937 and 1938, more than 1.5 million Soviet citizens were arrested for counterrevolutionary crimes; more than 650,000 were executed. Stalin oversaw the preparation of cases against Old Bolsheviks in the Moscow Trials. When one Old Bolshevik refused to confess, Stalin told his interrogator to ask the prisoner “how much does the Soviet Union weigh,” implying that no one could withstand the physical and psychological pressure the NKVD could produce. Stalin took a personal interest in the victims of the purge. He signed 362 death lists in 1937–1938, which included the names of 39,000 condemned men and women. Only on a few rare occasions did he exercise clemency and pardon someone.
   When Stalin sensed the purge had gone too far, he brought Lavrenty Beria, a trusted official from Georgia, to command the security service. From 1938 to Stalin’s death, Beria controlled the intelligence and security organs of the Soviet government from positions in the government and the party Central Committee. Stalin kept Beria close; the security generalissimo was a constant guest at Stalin’s late-night dinners and visited him when Stalin vacationed in the Caucasus.
   Stalin used the NKVD to collect information on all senior members of the party, military, and police leadership. His chief bodyguard, Nikolai Vlasik, collected information on members of the leadership and acted as a back channel for communications with selected officials in the party and the police. In his last 10 years, Stalin acted on rumors to dispatch senior officials to exile or execution. For example, in 1946 Marshal Georgi Zhukov was sent to a minor military command following information that he had brought back an excessive amount of loot from Germany and had been recruited by British intelligence. Stalin told the marshal, “I don’t believe these reports, but people are talking!” During the same period, Stalin condemned three senior military officers to death on the basis of a taped telephone conversation which showed their concern with the country’s dismal economic situation.
   Stalin’s record as a user of foreign intelligence is mixed. In the late 1930s he oversaw a purge of the foreign intelligence component of the NKVD and the GRU, which limited critical political and military intelligence reporting on Nazi Germany. Stalin distrusted any intelligence analysis. In 1936 he warned a GRU officer: “An intelligence hypothesis may become your hobby horse on which you will ride straight into a self-made trap.” Stalin thus rejected analysis of Nazi war preparations and warnings of the German invasion of 22 June 1941, an error that cost the Soviet Union millions of military and civilian casualties. Five days before the invasion, he minuted a report predicting an imminent invasion: “You can send your source on the German air force staff intelligence to his whore of a mother. This is not intelligence but misinformation.” It is little wonder that in 1941 the leaders of the GRU and NKVD carefully edited warnings from agents in the field.
   Nevertheless, during World War II Stalin used foreign intelligence about Nazi war plans as well as American and British strategy to maximize Soviet gains in Europe and Asia and to develop Soviet nuclear weapons. During the war, the Soviets had more than 300 agents working in the United States, providing Stalin with detailed and accurate information about Washington’s plans for the war and postwar world. Stalin insisted on bugging Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bedroom at the Tehran (1943) and Yalta (1945) conferences, and he demanded a translation of all conversations the next morning before he met with the American leader. Agents within the British establishment provided documents on British foreign and military policy, and Pierre Cot, the Free French minister in Moscow, was a Soviet agent. No generalissimo has had the intelligence assets that Stalin did during the war.
   Stalin used his service as the long and vengeful arm of Soviet power. In the late 1930s, he used the NKVD to track and eventually kill émigré White generals and his former rival Trotsky. Following the war, the service kidnapped and killed enemies of Moscow in West Germany and Austria. At his last Presidium meeting, Stalin reviewed a program to kill the Yugoslav leader Joseph Tito. In the last years of his life, Stalin prepared a purge of the party and the security service. The centerpiece of the purge was to be the testimony in the case of the Doctors’ Plot that prominent physicians planned to poison the leadership under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency and international Jewish organizations. Only Stalin’s death prevented another blood-letting.
   Stalin—like Beria, his primary intelligence and security lieutenant— was a frightening boss. He often communicated with rezidenturas abroad using the pseudonym “Ivan Vasilevich,” demanding information and action by his service. Good intelligence officers, as well as incompetents and cowards, often found themselves on trial for their lives for real and suspected omissions. Stalin also awarded intelligence professionals with rank, privileges, and personal attention. When he left for his last vacation in the south in 1952, he made sure that Yevgeny Pitovranov, an up-and-coming MGB officer, was specially invited to see him off.
   Contrary to some recent literature, neither Beria nor the security service was responsible for Stalin’s death. But Stalin’s decision to replace his chief bodyguard Vlasik in late 1952 may have indirectly played a part in his death. When Stalin’s guard detail noticed that Stalin had not awakened on the morning of 2 March, they first waited hours before entering the room, and then waited hours more before summoning medical help for the stroke that he had suffered. Stalin’s policy of a tight control of his guards may have hastened his painful death on 5 March.
   The heritage of Joseph Stalin—like that of his intelligence service— remains mixed in Russia. While there is now a treasure trove of literature on the crimes of the Stalin era in the Russian language, there has also been considerable rehabilitation of the leader and a number of books on the wartime exploits of the security services. Furthermore, the statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky torn down in August 1991 has been placed back in a position of honor at the Lubyanka. In a recent Russian poll, half of the respondents believed Stalin was a positive figure. The speaker of the Russian Duma in 2004 hailed Stalin as a “positive force.”

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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