Who wouldn’t want to be Superman? He’s invincible, he’s handsome, he’s unimaginably strong, and he can fly. There’s some heartache to his backstory, to be sure, but Superman just drips cool. In addition, if the notoriety ever grew cumbersome all he has to do to effectively become incognito is don a pair of glasses.
Superman is the human ideal. When writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Schuster first introduced their indestructible superhero creation in June of 1938 they also penned the perfect tagline. They called him the Man of Steel. That certainly resonated, but it turned out that Siegel and Schuster weren’t the first. A few years prior a short-statured meteorologist from Georgia (the nation, not the state) grabbed that name for himself.
I don’t care much for the Nazis. They are history’s alpha villains. While they were undeniably snappy dressers, Hitler and his minions murdered millions in their diabolical quest for planetary ethnic cleansing. However, Hitler was at best third in the modern pantheon of mass murderers.
It is tough to visualize the scope of institutionalized death in the 20th century. Sundry governments took life on a scale previously unimaginable. Democide is the term used to describe government-sanctioned murder. According to R.J. Rummel, during the 20th century, the world’s governments murdered six times more people than died in combat in all wars foreign and domestic. If you assume an average height of five feet and you laid the resulting corpses head to foot they would circle the globe ten times. Wow.
People are innately bad. We come from the factory broken and in need of redemption. Anyone who disagrees with that has clearly never met a human toddler. While the actions of government are by nature collective, certain remarkable individual personalities do inevitably percolate to the fore. One of the most compellingly dark figures in modern history was Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili. The world has come to know this bloodthirsty psychopath as Joseph Stalin.
The Birth of the Monster
Stalin was likely personally responsible for the deaths of around six million people. His lunatic policies claimed another three million innocent lives beyond that. How do you create a man capable of such cold-hearted carnage? As is always the case, you begin with a broken home.
Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili was born in the Georgian town of Gori in December of 1878. He was his family’s only child to survive infancy. His dad, Besarion, was a shoemaker, and his mom, Ekaterine, cleaned houses. When the bottom fell out of the shoemaking business, young Ioseb’s dad began hitting the bottle. Besarion descended into alcoholism and began beating Ekaterine and their son. In 1883 Ekaterine and Ioseb hit the road.
Over the next ten years, this mom and child burned through nine addresses. In 1884 the young man contracted smallpox. Though he obviously survived, the disease left him badly scarred. At age 12 he was run over by a phaeton, a modest horse-drawn carriage. This injury left him with diminished use of his left arm.
Ioseb was a small, somewhat sickly child. He ultimately topped out at around five foot five and supposedly wore lifts in his shoes to make himself appear taller. At five foot seven, it is said that Vladimir Putin does the same thing. Not being tall is not a big deal. Some of my favorite people are vertically challenged. However, in this case, Ioseb’s innate moral defects combined with his habitus and physical limitations to create something truly horrible. Regardless, in 1894 at age sixteen Ioseb enrolled in the Orthodox Spiritual Seminary in Tiflis. This short, scarred, crippled little man aspired to become a priest.
Ioseb was, by all accounts, genuinely smart. While in seminary he began writing poetry, some of which was quite good. Along the way, however, he also started reading. Chernyshevsky, Kazbegi, and Marx all planted ideas in his head that ultimately turned out to be teratogens. Teratogen is a medical term used to describe a foreign substance that causes birth defects. The literal translation is “monster maker”.
The more he read, the more rebellious he became. Young Ioseb stopped doffing his hat to the monks at the seminary, and he refused to participate in prayers. He lost interest in his studies, and his grades plummeted. He was repeatedly confined to his cell for behavior infractions. Eventually, he declared himself an atheist and in 1899 left the school in a huff.
The Monster Comes of Age
Later that year Ioseb began work as a meteorologist at the Tiflis Observatory. Apparently, it didn’t take a great deal of formal training to be a weatherman back then. While there he studied socialist theory and began organizing workers to protest the government. He eventually authored several workers’ strikes and was soon on the run. In April of 1902, he went to jail. Prison is the finishing school for both career criminals and megalomaniac dictators. Stalin and Hitler each got their start there.
The young man was remanded to Siberia but escaped twice. His first attempt was foiled due to frostbite. On his second try, he made it home to resume his political activism. At some point, he adopted the nom de guerre Joseph Stalin, the Man of Steel.
Stalin married and fathered a son but lost his wife to typhus. He subsequently went full bandit, commanding a guerilla band called the Outfit. The Outfit made money via bank robbery, extortion rackets, and counterfeiting currency. They also had a nasty habit of kidnapping children from wealthy families and holding them for ransom. What followed was prison, uprisings, girlfriends, and paramours.
World War 1 changed everything, but Stalin was supposedly too crippled to fight. During the 1917 revolution, however, Stalin nonetheless served as Lenin’s bodyguard. He smuggling the man out of the office of Pravda amidst a violent armed raid. Alongside Leon Trotsky, Stalin helped facilitate Lenin’s Bolsheviks when they moved to seize power in October 1917.
Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Yakov Sverdlov, and Stalin ran this fresh new revolutionary government as a foursome of sorts. When the civil war grew heated Stalin was dispatched to command military forces arrayed against the White armies. He subsequently lost an astronomical number of troops. He also developed a taste for political execution that was to follow him throughout the rest of his dark twisted career.
The Real Face of Power
Lenin had a stroke in 1922 and died two years later. Despite some fairly significant acrimony between the two men toward the end, Stalin still served as one of Lenin’s pallbearers and found himself in the position of General Secretary. At least half a dozen other Russian politicians coveted the job, but Stalin deftly moved to bypass, neutralize, or kill them. By the late 1920’s Stalin was the head enchilada.
No offense to my left-wing countrymen, but communism just doesn’t work. It’s as wrong as a football bat. No amount of tinkering or tweaking will ever make it functional. Communism presumes people are selfless and good. They aren’t. As a result, really bad things happen under communist regimes…every single time.
“We have fallen behind the advanced countries by fifty to a hundred years. We must close that gap in ten years. Either we do this or we’ll be crushed.
This is what our obligations before the workers and peasants of the USSR dictate to us.”
— Stalin, February 1931
They called it, among other things, dekulakization and collectivization. Kulaks were affluent peasants who thrived as small farm owners. Stalin’s programs centralized land ownership and turned kulaks into functionaries of the state. Without any motivation to better themselves, production plummeted. The stage was set for something pretty awful.
Communism worships the human ideal, something that, in my opinion at least, doesn’t actually exist. They have little use for God. In 1931 the communists demolished the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow to make space for the sparkly new Palace of the Soviets. The Great Depression certainly didn’t help, and in 1932 famine struck.
Carnage on a Biblical Scale
Amidst widespread starvation, a desperate Stalin instigated the Great Purge, itself a smaller subset of the Great Terror. Anyone even remotely suspected of opposing Stalin or his policies was simply killed. Eventually, paranoia ruled the day, and you didn’t have to do anything to be arrested, deported, or murdered. I have a friend whose grandfather fled his Russian home for Germany and escaped Stalin’s purge by a whisker. Along the way, Stalin liquidated most of his competent military leadership as well. Apparently, it can be tough to throttle something like mass murder back once you get tooled up.
World War 2 happened, and 15% of the Soviet population became hors de combat. Stalin squandered 800,000 men during his ill-fated attack on Finland alone. Almost 70% of Russian men born in 1923 were dead by the end of WW2.
Regardless, by 1945 Stalin was at the top of his game. He awarded himself the title of Generalissimus. Throughout it all, however, he grew ever more paranoid. Stalin had half the POWs returning from WW2 imprisoned as traitors. By 1953 fully 3% of the Soviet population had been jailed or deported for political crimes.
In March of 1953, Stalin suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. He was 74. In the chaos surrounding his funeral, more than 100 people were crushed to death. It seems a fitting tribute to a weatherman who ultimately murdered nine million people.