By John Ebon.
Reported by Antonina W. Bouis, Jean-Claude Bouis
and James 0. Jackson/Moscow
Barbaric and tough willed, guileful and vain, Stalin is as challenging a subject for a novelist as for a biographer. Born Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in 1879, he was briefly a Russian Orthodox seminarian. After being expelled, he joined the fledgling Bolshevik faction of the Social Democratic Party in 1904. serving as an itinerant organizer and propagandist. Shortly after the 1917 October Revolution, he was named General Secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee. It was considered a drudge's job, but it allowed Stalin to place allies in key positions within the expanding Soviet bureaucracy and to position himself to take control after Lenin's death in 1924.
Lenin had opposed Stalin as his successor. "This chef will cook only peppery dishes." Lenin once warned, but he did not make his view widely known. By 1934 Stalin had managed to outmaneuver his principal rivals (notably Leon Trotsky whom he forced into exile). Nonetheless, Stalin still had to cope with a relatively moderate opposition within the Politburo, led by Sergei Kirov, the popular head of the party apparatus in Leningrad.
Kirov was shot to death in December 1934, an event that triggered Stalin's reign of terror, a vast purge that culminated in the show trials of 1936 and 37. After personally conducting the interrogation of the killer, a mentally deranged party member who mysteriously was able to gain entry to Kirov's offices, Stalin declared that the Leningrad leader was the victim of a counterrevolutionary plot, which appeared to grow ever wider. Nearly a million party members were arrested as counterrevolutionaries. Most historians, however, are convinced that Stalin himself ordered the Kirov assassination to dispose of a rival