Every consequential figure in history leaves their mark not just in their actions, but in the public fascination that they inspire years after their death: How did this person rise to the top? What compelled them to act in a certain way? Could childhood events have shaped this person’s future? Would things have been different if he or she had just done one thing differently?
These questions continue to swirl around the figure of Joseph Stalin, and with good reason. For more than 30 years in the mid-20th century, Stalin wrote pages of Russian history in blood, and when he died in 1953, he left a huge smoking crater in the middle of the century that, in many ways, has yet to fully close.
It might never be known just how many people died under Stalin, but it certainly isn’t less than tens of millions. In his day, Stalin ruled the largest land empire of the modern age, built up a state that went from a feudal monarchy to a Space Age superpower, and disposed of anyone he believed would or did stand in his way.
Historians may never truly know how exactly the son of Georgian serfs became one of history’s most important leaders, but in the gallery of Joseph Stalin facts above, we can at least begin to trace out some significant steps in the man’s life.
He had a challenging upbringing
Stalin was the son of a peasant and a cobbler, the latter of whom lost his job and eventually abandoned his family for life elsewhere.
All three of his siblings died while young, and at school he was often mocked by teachers and peers for his accent — Stalin, from Georgia, spoke mainly Georgian. Years later, Stalin would contract smallpox, and the pockmarks would stay on his face for the duration of his life.
He was abused as a child
As one of Stalin’s childhood friends would later write, “undeserved and fearful beatings made the boy as hard and heartless as his father.”
Stalin’s father, Vissarion, was believed to have been an alcoholic and to have regularly beaten his wife and son.
He excelled in school, even while causing trouble
At 14 years old, Stalin graduated at the top of his class and received a scholarship for university study.
That’s not to say his studies kept him out of trouble, however. One fellow student called him “the best but also the naughtiest pupil,” and biographical accounts back it up: he formed a gang with friends, and at one point was known to have ignited explosives in a shop.
A bad reunion with his dad may have kickstarted his dislike of capitalism
At age 12, when Stalin was hospitalized after being hit by a carriage, his father kidnapped him. According to biographer Robert Service, Stalin’s father then forced his son to work as an apprentice cobbler in a factory setting.
This, Service said, was Stalin’s “first experience with capitalism,” and one that was “raw, harsh, and dispiriting.”
He attended seminary
Before he would go on to lead the Soviet Union, Stalin attended the Seminary of Tiflis, a Jesuit institution in present-day Tbilisi, from 1894 to 1899.
He didn’t do this because he wanted to be a priest — that was his mother’s ambition for him — but because he had no access to higher education elsewhere.
He was a decent poet
Stalin was an avid reader, and while at seminary would read Goethe, Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman.
At school, he began writing poetry of his own. Five of his poems, all written in Georgian, appeared in the popular literary journal, Iveria, which was owned by poet Ilia Chavchavadze.