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Stalin's Satellites: A Look at Stalin's Inner Circle

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Death is the solution to all problems. No man, no problem.

- Joseph Stalin


Stalin in the early years

Joseph Stalin (1879 - 1953, born Josep Dushashvili), is undoubtedly the most divisive figure ever to inhabit the landscape of Russian political history. To many older Russians (and even some of the new generation) he's the 'man of steel' - the inimitable national hero who, with VI Lenin, helped to forge the strongest and most enduring Communist state the world has ever known.

To others he is and always will be an evil, psychopathic murderer and despot, responsible for the cold-blooded killing of up to 20 million people during his 30 year reign of terror.

The modern day Russia is still coming to terms with the complex legacy left by Stalin - much of which only came to light after the opening of the official state archives in the late '90s. In recent years there have been efforts within Russia to rehabilitate Stalin's public image by opening museums dedicated to his 'achievements', and erecting statues in town squares. Russia, it seems, is collectively yearning for the days of the 'great Stalin' who was the perceived saviour of the nation.

Here are some facts about his early years:

  • He was born on 18 December 1878 in the small town of Gori in the Tiflis Governate of the Russian Empire (now modern day Georgia), the son of working class parents Besa (a cobbler) and Kete (a housemaid). Joseph was beloved by his mother, because before he was born she had lost multiple children during or soon after childbirth;
  • During Stalin's childhood he was subjected to repeated beatings from his alcoholic father, and also in the brutal town where he was raised (which had many street gangs, who engaged in fights and blood feuds);
  • Stalin was a small child who had a number of health issues, including a bout of smallpox which scarred his face, and a serious injury to his arm at 12 which left it permanently shorter and stiffer than the other arm;
  • Stalin first attended a Greek Orthodox priesthood school (his mother was forced to seek a scholarship to allow him to attend), and then for around 3 years, he attended a seminary, which is thought to have marked the beginning of his revolutionary ideas and activities.
  • Fresh out of the seminary, Stalin became a young agitator and revolutionary for Lenin's Bolshevik party in the early years of the 20th century. His actions became increasingly those of a gangster - committing bank robberies and other terrorist acts to support the financial base of the growing Socialist party in Russia and the Caucasus. The base for his activities was Tiflis -the Georgian capital.
  • Stalin's rise to power began after the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1922 he was appointed General Secretary of the Socialist Democratic party (the Bolsheviks), and this allowed him to build and consolidate his power in the party, and then eventually to take over from Lenin after Lenin's death in 1924.
Stalin with Lenin and Mikhail Kalinin (the Old Bolsheviks)

Stalin with Lenin and Mikhail Kalinin (the Old Bolsheviks)

Stalin with Yezhov (Secret Police commander)

Stalin with Yezhov (Secret Police commander)

The influence of Stalin's 'Inner Circle'

Although Stalin is often seen as a rampant individualist, in fact he was the archetypal Communist Party loyalist and functionary. He depended absolutely on his 'inner circle' for advice, support, carrying out of his orders (whether they were to print party newspapers, or to murder a detractor), recreation and entertainment, and many other things.

From his two wives - Kato and Nadezhda, to his fellow revolutionaries and Party members at various phases of his career (Yezhov, Molotov, Kirov, Bukharin, Beria and so on), Stalin was profoundly influenced by those around him.

So who were these 'satellites' who became so vital to upholding Stalin's reign of terror?

This creature...[s]oftened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity

- Joseph Stalin (1907)


Satellite 1: Kato Svanidze: first wife and 'humaniser'

Stalin was married twice in his lifetime. The first of these marriages was to a pretty young Georgian seamstress named Ekaterina ('Kato') Svanidze. Stalin met Kato through a friend and fellow revolutionary - Alexander Svanidze, who introduced Stalin to his sister Kato. The two married in 1906

Stalin and Kato initially made their home in Tiflis and were happy for a time. It's not disputed that Stalin genuinely loved Kato -he enjoyed her sweetness and innocent, youthful joy. It was so different from the fractured home in which he'd been raised -by a violent, alcoholic father, and a controlling, stifling mother, who was also free with corporal punishment.

However when Stalin was forced to flee Tiflis for Baku (in Azerbaijan) in 1907, to avoid arrest for his part in a terrorist bank robbery in Tiflis, Kato saw much less of her husband, as he was always away on Party business. Kato became very lonely, and also became pregnant with their only son, Yaakov (born 1907).

Unfortunately Kato became very ill (probably with Typhus) during one of Stalin's frequent trips away from home, and by the time he returned it was too late -she had died at the age of 22.

Upon her death, Stalin was grief-stricken and inconsolable. He famously stated: "she died, and with her, my last warm feelings for humanity". After Kato's death, Stalin moved away, and left his infant son to be raised by members of Kato's family.

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"You cannot make a revolution in white gloves"

- V.I Lenin


Stalin's young revolutionary years and exile: 1904 - 1914

During the pre WWI years, Stalin began his ruthless rise up the Bolshevik party hierarchy -intent on impressing Lenin and the other established Party faithful with his loyalty to the cause, and his practical, effective abilities as a fundraiser (often by illegal means such as robbery and extortion), and 'enforcer' (removing those who opposed the Party). The tsar's secret police, the Okhrana, kept a close eye on Stalin during these years, and twice he was arrested and sent to remote parts of Siberia to be exiled.

Important events during this period include:

* Meeting Lenin: Stalin attended the Bolshevik party conference in Finland in 1905, and met Vladimir Lenin, the party leader and chief ideologue. From having idolised Lenin through his writing, Stalin recorded his disappointment upon meeting his hero, and discovering what a 'small' and ordinary man Lenin appeared to be.

* The Tiflis robbery (1907): Stalin masterminded the armed hold-up of a stagecoach delivering money to the Imperial Bank - killing and wounding several men, and stealing huge amounts of money. This became an internationally publicised incident;

* Siberian exile (2 yrs) 1908: In 1908, having become infamous for organising Baku oil and gas workers to strike and demand better wages and conditions against their employers, Stalin was sent to exile in a remote part of Siberia for 2 years. After seven months in exile, he disguised himself as a woman and escaped on a train to St Petersburg. He returned to Baku in late July.

* 'Soso' becomes 'Stalin": It was in these years that to avoid the secret police, and reinforce3 his revolutionary identity, Iosep Dushgavili ('Soso') began using the name 'Stalin' ('Man of steel').

"Imagine my disappointment when I saw the most ordinary man, below average height, in no way different from ordinary mortals"

- Stalin (1905), on meeting Lenin for the first time


Satellite #2: Party Leader Lenin

The ideological influence of Lenin over the young Stalin can't be underestimated. Similarly, Lenin came to increasingly rely on the pragmatic, workaholic Stalin to be the 'go to' man of the Party when it came to fundraising, and eliminating foes.

There's little doubt that Lenin knew early on of Stalin's bloodthirsty, ruthless techniques for achieving the aims of the Party - which included everything from robbery, to extortion, to torture and hired assassination, but he accepted that these methods were a necessary evil for achieving the 'revolution' (overthrow of the Tsarist system) he so ardently desired for Russia.

During these years Lenin - himself a minor Russian noble (as opposed to Stalin's working class roots), mostly lived outside Russia. He needed a 'man on the ground' inside Russia to support the Partty's goals, and the man he increasingly turned to, and trusted in this role, was Stalin.

This relationship of trusted reliance, and mutual respect, led to Lenin appointing Stalin as General Secretary of the Bolshevik Party in 1922.

However in later years, Lenin began to increasingly distrust Stalin's ruthless methods and in particular, his quest for absolute power and supremacy in the Party. When Lenin fell ill and was on his deathbed he wrote a prescient 'Last Testament' denouncing Stalin as his successor. It read as follows:

"Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution. Comrade Trotsky, on the other hand, as his struggle against the C.C. on the question of the People's Commissariat of Communications has already proved, is distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C. [Central Committee], but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work"

Stalin apparently found this document after Lenin's death and had it hidden for many years, but had it come to light, it may have resulted in Stalin's expulsion from the Party, and may have avoided the 'Great Terror' and other murderous actions by Stalin in later years.

There is no alternative to class struggle

— Vyacheslav Molotov

Vyacheslav Molotov

Vyacheslav Molotov

Satellite #3: Viacheslav Molotov: the Drab Functionary

Like Stalin, Molotov, who became Stalin's foreign minister in the 1930, was an early convert to the Socialist Democratic Party (the Bolsheviks) under Lenin, and like Stalin, he suffered several periods in exile in Siberia for revolutionary activities.

After the revolution of 1917, Molotov became a close confidant and protege of Stalin's -helping carry out many of Stalin's ruthless orders to kill or imprison those deemed to oppose Stalin's rule.

Although Molotov was a dull and rather colourless man (Trotsky, a brilliant intellectual, once dubbed him "mediocrity personified"), Stalin greatly valued his loyalty as a party functionary, and his support against Stalin's enemies in the Party, who included Leon Trotsky, and Nikolai Bukharin. Some of Molotov's key achievements during his tenure as minister in Stalin's government included:

* Overseeing Stalin's 'forced collectivisation' programme -whereby peasant farms were compulsorily seized and used by the state (forcing the tenants into poverty and starvation). Peasants (kulaks) who resisted were sent off to forced labour camps, where they often died.

* Overseeing Stalin's rapid industralisation programme

However perhaps Molotov's most chilling legacy as a Stalin satellite will be the critical role he played in the Great Purge of the 1930s. During this time Stalin and Molotov ruthlessly purged the Party of most of its original members who had supported Stalin, deeming them to be enemies of the revolution. It was a way of ensuring Stalin continued to govern unopposed, by removing any threats (actual or imagined). Party members were imprisoned, tortured and often killed. During the Great Purge, Molotov personally approved 372 documented execution lists, more than any other Soviet official, including Stalin. It is known that Molotov was one of few with whom Stalin openly discussed the purges.

"The preliminary investigation has established that the name of the villain, the murderer of Comrade Kirov, is Leonid Vasil'evich Nikolaev, born 1904, a former employee of the Leningrad RKI [Worker-Peasants' Inspectorate]. The investigation continues."

— (Official statement after Kirov's death, 1934)

Sergei Kirov

Sergei Kirov

Satellite #4: Sergei Kirov: Mysterious Murder of Stalin's Right-hand man

Sergei Kirov was a brilliant Party organiser, and rose through the Bolshevik party ranks to become head of the Party organisation in Leningrad (St Petersburg).

Kirov, like Stalin, was arrested many times for revolutionary activities in the years prior to the 1917 revolution, and was charged with operating illegal party printing presses. He fought in the Russian civil war which followed the revolution, in the Northern Caucuses as a military commander.

In 1921, Kirov became manager of the Azerbaijan party organization, and as he became known as a loyal supporter of Joseph Stalin, in 1926 he was rewarded with the command of the Leningrad party. In 1930 Kirov was elected as a member of the Central Committee of the Party (the Politburo). Stalin may have begun to view him as a serious rival at this point.

Although Kirov had been a strong supporter of Stalin, including the leader's sharp swing to the left during the period of enforced collectivisation, Kirov also loved the good life, and became wary of the austere regime being promoted by Stalin within the Party. However Kirov perhaps took on his most important personal role for Stalin after the death (by suicide) of Stalin's second wife, Nadezhda. Kirov become a shoulder for Stalin to cry on, and a close friend and confidant who holidayed with Stalin frequently at Stalin's dacha (holiday house) in Sochi.

Kirov is best known for his assassination (probably at the hands of Stalin) in 1934. Stalin may have used Kirov's murder as a pretext for the 'Great Purge' of the Party that followed, during which thousands of his own Party members were imprisoned or killed, as in his zeal to 'root out' those responsible for Kirov's death, Stalin went on a rampage that lasted five years.

"The children will forget her in a few days, but me she has crippled for life."

— (Stalin, after Nadezhda's death in 1932)

Nadezhda Alliluyeva

Nadezhda Alliluyeva

Nada and Stalin

Nada and Stalin

Satellite #5: Nadezhda Alliluyeva: Tragic Second Wife

Nadezhda Sergeevna Alliluyeva (9 September 1901 – 9 November 1932) was Stalin's much younger second wife. As a zealous revolutionary in her own right, and friend of the family, Stalin married Nada when he was 41 and she 19, after returning from his second period of exile in Siberia. They had two children (Vasily and Svetlana).

After the revolution, Nada continued to work in Lenin's office as an administrator, and like 'good Bolshevik women' she rejected make up and fancy dressing, in favour of plain, austere dress.

The marriage was not a happy one. It's thought Nada may have had a mental illness of some kind such as bipolar disorder, as she was often depressed and anxious, and had many angry and violent outbursts toward Stalin and others. Stalin's colleagues such as Kirov and Molotov recall her frequent "mood swings". She was distant and stern with the two children -especially Svetlana.

Witnessing Stalin's program of starvation and stranglehold over the landowning peasants in the 1930s may have tipped Nada over the edge as far as her mental health was concerned. She could not bear some of the things she saw during this period of time.

The Banquet - Nada's Death (1932)

On the evening of 8 November 1932, Stalin and Nadya hosted a banquet to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution. They argued vehemently on this evening. As usual Stalin had had a lot to drink, and was behaving poorly toward Nadya. She accused Stalin of being inconsiderate towards her (apparently he ignored her for most of the evening and didn't notice the special attention she had paid to getting ready). His response was to humiliate her in front of their guests by flicking cigarettes at her and addressing her ‘hey, you!’ Molotov’s wife chased after her and together they walked round the Kremlin grounds until Nadya calmed down and retired for bed.

The following morning, servants found Nadya dead – she had shot herself with a pistol given to her by her brother, Pavel. Perhaps not surprisingly in view of what we now know about Stalin's 'purges', most of the Alliluyev clan would suffer early deaths on the orders of Stalin. Even Stalin's daughter Svetlana later wondered whether Stalin would eventually have had her own mother arrested had she not died by her own hand.

Stalin publicly and privately mourned the death of his wife, and never really recovered from it. If it was possible for him to become more heartless and ruthless after her death, that is what he became.

Show me the man and I'll find you the crime

— Lavrenty Beria

Lavrenty Beria

Lavrenty Beria

Satellite #6: Lavrenty Beria: Murderous Police Chief

Perhaps the most feared of Stalin's entire cabal was the man who emerged as head of the Party's Secret police (the NKVD) in 1938 after the position became vacant following Yezhov's assassination - Lavrenty Beria.

Beria and Stalin had much in common - especially in terms of their background and upbringing. They were both native Georgians and spoke the Georgian tongue fluently (Beria was born and raised in the Sukhumi district of Georgia and spent most of his early revolutionary career in Georgia and the Transcaucases). Like Stalin, Beria had been close to his mother growing up, and she (like Stalin's mother) was a deeply religious, churchgoing woman.

Beria developed a fascination for state security work from very early on in his life, and was hired to work for the Azerbaijan security forces before he even finished studying. As soon as the Cheka (the earliest Bolshevik secret police) was formed, Beria joined it, in the early 1920s. By 1922 Beria was deputy head of the Georgian branch of the Bolshevik secret police. He led the brutal repression of the Georgian nationalist uprising, and it was probably during this period that he honed many of his brutal skills as a state executioner.

In 1926 Beria first met Stalin, and amongst other state security roles, he took on the duty as Stalin's personal security detail at his summer house (dacha) in Sochi.

Beria's influence expanded in the 1930s. He became Party Secretary for Georgia in 1931, and for the whole Transcaucasian region in 1932. He became a member of the Politburo in 1934, and oversaw Stalin's 'purges' of old loyal Party members in the 1930s.

In 1938 Stalin brought Beria to Moscow as head of the NKVD (the Secret Police). From this time on, Beria helped the Party through the war and supervised the Soviet bomb project. After the war Beria supervised the establishment of Communist satellite regimes in Eastern bloc countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and so on.

After Stalin's death, Beria was involved in a struggle for succession in the Party. He became Deputy Premier, with Malenkov as Prime Minister. Khrushchev became Party Secretary. Beria began to encourage a relaxation of strict Communism and a form of detente with the West (which he believed would bring economic prosperity). Suspicious of his motives and thirst for power, Khrushchev orchestrated a coup against Beria, aided by fellow Party members.

The Downfall of Beria

In June 1953 Beria was arrested (on suspicion of spying for the British and treachery), and held in a secret location in Moscow. Many of Beria's allies and subordinates were arrested at the same time, to prevent them coming to his aid. They were tried by a 'special session' of the supreme court (effectively a fake trial) and found guilty, with no right to defence counsel. They were then sentenced to death. Beria allegedly fell to his knees, cried and pleaded for mercy when this happened. He was executed by firing squad.

Beria is perhaps the most reviled of Stalin's deputies. This is because:

  • Beria expanded the gulags (forced labour/death camps) in Siberia, and vastly increased the numbers of exiles and prisoners sent there -many to an early death.
  • He was a sexual predator - often getting his bodyguards to seek out and bring underage girls to his house in Moscow and raping them in his soundproofed office. Sometimes they were also killed. Skeletons were found in the walls of his house (now the Tunisian embassy in Moscow) for many years after his death in 1953.
  • Stalin and others of Beria's colleagues knew not to allow their daughters or female relatives to be alone with Beria or accept rides from him.

Did you know?

The Not-so-badThe Bad

Stalin was an excellent singer - many acquaintances and friends thought he could have been an opera singer

It's now estimated Stalin was responsible for the deaths of more than 40 million people during his rule in Russia

Stalin often remembered people who had helped him earlier in his life, and he was sometimes kind to them many years later

Stalin murdered many of his friends and party colleagues during his 'purges'. No-one was safe.

Stalin doted on his daughter Svetlana

Stalin once said "one death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic"

Stalin loved movies and had a private movie theatre installed at his summer house. He especially enjoyed Westerns.

Stalin was extremely self-conscious about his physical appearance -especially his smallpox scars and shrunken left arm.

Stalin was a keen patron of the arts, and often had a hand in editing scripts of plays and books.

Stalin had very bad relationships with his two sons, and both sons met with an untimely death.

Stalin's only job outside politics was as a meteorologist.


Stalin was a poet of some note before he became a revolutionary



Mike Hey from UK on May 12, 2016:

This was a really interesting and well written hub. I have read a bit about Stalin but this ties together some of those key players in his life.

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