Dictators for the most part are very manipulative people. They know how to give the people what they want, when to take it from them, and what their weaknesses are.

The number one strength, or weakness, of any country, is its food supply and the people who produce that food. We’ve already seen how Pol Pot made the crazy decision of depopulating Cambodia’s cities to punish his enemies. It led to widespread starvation, disease, and the ultimate downfall of the Khmer Rouge.

You’ll see that starvation and using the food supply as a weapon is a reoccurring theme with our dictators.

Like, Pol Pot, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin also attempted to weaponize his country’s food supply, but he had fundamentally different reasons to do so. Although both dictators were communists, Pot saw the peasants as ideal socialists, while Stalin saw them as the enemy.

To Stalin, the peasants and small landowners, known in Russian as kulaks, were the enemy. The backbone of his new communist state, the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was the factory workers, while the kulaks represented monarchy, imperialism, conservatism, and the old ways.

So, to Stalin, the kulaks had to be eliminated.

Beginning in 1932, Stalin embarked on an ambitious program to strip the kulaks of their property and turn the farms, especially the breadbasket of Ukraine, into state-owned “collective” operations.

The result was one of the worst human rights catastrophes of the 20th century. Between four and 16 million people; mainly Ukrainians, died of starvation and disease in 1932 and 1933 in what became known as the Holodomor or Ukrainian genocide.

The Holodomor may have eliminated an entire class of Stalin’s enemies, but it destroyed the Soviet Union’s economy, killed many military-age men, and demoralized the country. The result was the Soviet Union losing early battles in World War II and almost losing the war.

Steel Sounds Better

When Ioseb Besarionis dze Jugashvili entered the world on December 18, 1878, in the town of Gori, Georgia (the central Asian country, not the state in the American south), few thought that he’d make it big someday nor that he’d be responsible for as many as 20 million deaths.

The boy who would later become Stalin studied in a seminary for a while, but after determining that he was an atheist, he moved to Russia and became active in Marxist and communist circles.

By the early 1900s, Jugashvili earned quite a reputation as a man who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He changed his name to the Russian “Joseph Stalin,” with the last name meaning “steel.”

Not only did the name sound more Russian, but it also was a clear statement about the man he wanted to become, and what he was becoming.

Stalin spent time in jail for a variety of crimes, many violent, which he did on behalf of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian communists. Stalin beat people up, committed robberies, and did vandalism and arson to forward his cause.

He learned that violence, fear, and terror could be very effective political tools when used properly.

When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1918 and when the Russian Communist Party was triumphant after the Russian Civil War in 1922, Stalin was there with Vladimir Lenin. Most members of the Communist Party didn’t want to see Stalin anywhere near the levers of power, but when Lenin died in 1924, their worst nightmares came true.

And just as they thought, Stalin quickly began purging his enemies, real and perceived, from the Communist Party, the military, and eventually the farmers.

Stalin had a bone to pick with the farmers and he was going to make them starve to see his point.

The Holodomor

Whether Stalin targeted all Ukrainians as a form of punishment with the collectivization program is a subject of scholarly debate, but nearly all agree that his policies led to the Holodomor, which is a Ukrainian word for “death by hunger.”

As the people of Ukraine starved since it was the most agriculturally productive part of the USSR, so too did the rest of the Soviet Union. The workers in the cities were provided with rations for a while, but they began disappearing and in their place was plenty of anti-kulak and anti-Ukrainian propaganda, in films, radio, and posters. Once the Holodomor ended and the bodies of the dead were disposed of, though, its long-term effects began to show.

After invading eastern Poland in September 1939, the Red Army attempted to follow that up with an invasion of Finland in November but could only achieve a Pyrrhic victory at best. In addition to purging some of the Red Army’s best commanders, Stalin’s forced collectivization left the rank-and-file with inadequate numbers.

By the time the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Red Army was a shadow of what it could have been, and when the Germans came plowing into Ukraine, they found many Ukrainians willing to help them. It wasn’t that the Ukrainians were pro-German or pro-Nazi necessarily; they were anti-Russian and anti-Soviet due to the Holodomor.

Of course, Stalin and the Red Army went on to defeat Germany on the Eastern Front, but it was touch and go. Thanks to the crazy decision to starve the kulaks of Ukraine, the Soviets lost many more people than they needed to and nearly lost the war.

Not to mention, there are still major tensions between Ukraine and Russia today, much of it due to the crazy sh*t Stalin did while he was in power.

Did You Know?

  • Because the Soviet Union was such a closed society, news of the Holodomor didn’t reach the West until after World War II, when refugees from Eastern Europe brought the horror stories of their experiences with them.
  • There is debate over whether the Holodomor specifically targeted the Ukrainian people and some debate whether it should be classified as “genocide.” However, there is no debate that it happened.
  • Russian leaders in the post-Soviet period admit that mass starvation took place in 1932-1933 in Ukraine, but refuse to consider it ‘a genocide’, stating that the Ukrainian people were not specifically targeted.
  • After World War II, Stalin actually increased repression by opening a chain of gulags (prison camps) in Siberia and by deporting Baltic peoples from their homelands and spreading them out across the USSR.
  • Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953, at the age of 73 from a cerebral hemorrhage in his dacha (cabin) outside Moscow.