Stalin, whose original name was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, was born on Dec. 21, 1879, in the Caucasian town of Gori, Georgia. He was the only one of four children to survive infancy. His father, Vissarion Dzhugashvili, an unsuccessful cobbler, entered a factory in Tiflis, took to drink, and died in 1890 from wounds received in a brawl. However, his mother, Yekaterina, kept the family together by taking in washing and sewing, hiring out for housework, and nursing young Joseph through various sicknesses including smallpox and septicemia, which left his left arm slightly crippled for life. An illiterate peasant girl herself, Yekaterina was deeply religious, puritanical, ambitious, and intent on securing for her son training for the priesthood, one of the few careers in which the non-Russian Georgian poor might easily rise to higher station. He was enrolled in the local Orthodox parochial school in Gori in 1888.
Obviously able, he won a free scholarship in 1894 to the Orthodox theological seminary in Tiflis. There he succumbed to the radicalism traditional among the students of the school and in his fourth year joined Mesame Dasi, a secret group espousing Georgian nationalism and socialism. Expelled from the seminary in May 1899, when he was about to graduate, he first tried tutoring and then clerical work at the Tiflis Observatory. But he abandoned his clerical job in May 1901, when he was about to be arrested. Although he came to reject his church training, it left a mark on his style, which tended toward the liturgical and was characterized by dry, categorical assertion.
The young Dzhugashvili joined the Social Democratic party of Georgia in 1901 and plunged full-time into revolutionary work, serving first in Tiflis and then in Batum, where he helped organize strikes and demonstrations. Thus began a life of dedicated privation. He lived and wrote under a succession of pseudonyms, of which his favorites were Koba (the name of a legendary Georgian folk hero meaning "The Indomitable) and, after 1913, Stalin ("The Man of Steel). In 1901 his first articles appeared in the clandestine periodical Brdzola (The Struggle), published in Baku. He was arrested for the first time in Batum on April 18, 1902, and exiled to Siberia in 1903, only to escape and reappear in Tiflis in 1904--a pattern that he experienced many times prior to 1917.
Dzhugashvili--unlike many of his fellow conspirators, who particularly valued intellectual brilliance and mastery of the written and spoken word--began to show a special interest in practical problems and party organization. This predilection led him to join the handful of Georgian Socialists who backed Bolshevism, as Lenin's conception of a highly disciplined, centralized conspiratorial Socialist party came to be called, and he helped propagate Lenin's views in the local clandestine press. He was not yet sufficiently prominent, however, to attend the founding meeting...