Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was a pretty famous Russian revolutionary and dictator, as you probably already know. He was in charge of the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death in 1953, as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Stalin is pretty much singlehandedly responsible for transforming Russia’s peasant society into an industrial and military superpower with the help of Communism. As you might imagine, his regime was a pretty brutal one, and millions of Russians died during his reign – an estimated seven million of whom perished in the Soviet famine of 1932-33, which many historians blame Stalin for.
In order to create his Communist empire, Stalin set about collectivisation of farming, and executing his enemies. The Soviet leader had a lot of enemies, having outmaneuvered his rivals to claim the top job as party leader in 1922. Sensing an opportunity, the next particularly notable thing Stalin did was align with the US and UK to form the Grand Alliance in the aftermath of WWII. The Soviet leader seized the chance to work with the US and UK in the hope it would help him spread Communism.
Once the Nazis had been stamped out and Stalin had been permitted to set up Soviet satellite sites across Eastern Europe, the Soviet leader set about rigging elections to ensure that Communist governments came to power. As you might imagine, this didn’t make the other two members of the Grand Alliance too happy. Sadly, there wasn’t much Churchill or Roosevelt could do to stop Stalin by this point; the 1944 Percentages Agreement drafted up by Churchill in a bid to control Stalin’s influence in the post-war world had instead convinced the Soviet Leader the UK and US were happy for him to control Eastern Europe. Oops!
Just so you know, the initial agreement was that Romania would be split, with Russia getting 90 per cent and the others 10 per cent; Greece would be Great Britain 90 per cent and Russia 10 per cent. Yugoslavia would be 50/50. Bulgaria would be Russia 75 per cent and the others 25 per cent. But in reality, Stalin took much more than what was agreed and there was little that the Western Allies could do to stop him.
Stalin’s main motive for the creation of Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe was the need for security. At the time, the Soviet Union was the only Communist country in the world and Stalin believed that Western countries were bent on destroying it. These fears weren’t baseless; immediately after the Russian Revolution, Britain had sent troops to support the White Russians against the Communists. Churchill had also been outspoken throughout his career about the dangers of Communism. On top of this, the Soviet Union had been invaded from the West by Germany twice during the 20th Century.
And so, Stalin believed that the satellite states of Eastern Europe would act as a buffer against future aggression. To this end he rigged elections to ensure that Communist governments, controlled by Moscow, came into power in those countries. This increased tensions because it raised the possibility that Stalin might also try to control parts of Western Europe. As a result, Stalin had much to be concerned about despite his growing influence.
If you’re wondering why the liberated countries went along with Stalin’s orders, there’s a pretty good reason. In order to survive politically, the leaders of the Soviet satellite states had to strive to be more like Stalin than Stalin himself. To this end, Stalin was celebrated as the liberator of Europe and the builder of socialism. The leaders of the Soviet satellite states were frequently called to Moscow, where it was explained that the economies and social structure of the satellite states had to closely reflect that of the Soviet Union. And so, they were centralised, collectivised and regulated by Five Year Plans. Spoiler alert: this didn’t work.
Stalin only grew in strength until his death in 1953, which was what marked the beginning of de-Stalinisation and the reduction of Cold War tensions. This process was helped by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 election, and the end of the Korean War in 1953. But the key event in all of this – A.K.A the one that finally marked a change in Soviet policy – is usually taken to date from Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called 1956 Secret Speech in which he criticised Stalin and listed many of his crimes.