To everyone else, he would always be Joseph Stalin, or simply “Stalin,” but to him, he was Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili. But before he became the ruthless Soviet Union dictator, he was just like all of us. He was a “normal” man. So, what happened to change his character? What happened in his early life? As you can probably expect, it wasn’t a happy tale.

Born into poverty

Stalin’s early life started out rough right from the beginning. Born on December 18, 1878, in Gori, Georgia, then part of the Russian Empire, Stalin was born into poverty as the son of an alcoholic failing shoemaker and a housemaid. In his youth, his father often beat him. Eventually, his father attacked the town’s chief of police, while drunk, and he was sent into exile. This emotional turmoil greatly impacted Stalin.

In 1894, 16-year-old Stalin received a scholarship to attend seminary school at Russia’s primary Russian Orthodox seminary in the nearby city of Tbilisi, studying for the priesthood of the Georgian Orthodox Church. While there, he began reading about Communism from German social philosopher Karl Marx, sparking his interest in the revolutionary movement against the Russian monarchy.

By 1899, Stalin was missing multiple exams, ultimately being expelled from the seminary. Stalin finally realized he didn’t believe in God and the seminary wasn’t the best place for him.

Changing his name

Up until his time in seminary school, Stalin still used his birth name: Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili. But during his education, he began using a pseudonym, but it wasn’t Stalin, at first. He took the name “Koba,” derived from the “rob-from-the-rich, give-to-the-poor” hero in Alexander Kazbegi’s 1882 novel, The Patricide. He demanded his fellow classmates refer to him by his new name. We’d hate to know what he would have done if they didn’t listen to him.

After leaving seminary school, Stalin worked in a weather office until 1901 when he started working as an underground political agitator, participating in labor demonstrations and strikes with the militant wing of the Marxist Social Democratic movement, also known as the Bolsheviks. He became passionate in political activities, often committing violent acts, including bank robberies and kidnappings. He would be arrested and imprisoned several times for these acts.

By 1911, Stalin officially adopted his new name— Joseph Stalin, a name that derives from the Russian word for “steel,” translating to “man of steel.” This is fitting for the future dictator, but in 1911, no one knew just how ruthless he would become.

His quick rise to power

It didn’t take long for Stalin to gain his famous power. By 1912, the Bolshevik Party leader, Vladimir Lenin, was in exile in Switzerland. Knowing the political group would need a new leader, Lenin appointed Stalin to serve on the first Central Committee of the party. Stalin worked hard with his committee members to gain control of Russia, eventually seizing power in November 1917.

In 1922, the Soviet Union formed, with Lenin as its first leader. But that wouldn’t last for long, with Stalin moving up in the party in multiple leadership positions. He was skilled at appointing allies to various government jobs and growing a strong base of political support in the Soviet Union.

But in 1924, Lenin died, and Stalin had no choice but to outmaneuver his rivals to assume control of the Community Party. He became the dictator of the Soviet Union he would forever be known as, turning the country from a peasant society into an industrial superpower characterized by harsh labor and terror. If farmers refused to cooperate with his demands, Stalin ordered his officers to shoot them as their punishment.

Stalin brought significant terror and didn’t hesitate to eliminate anyone who opposed him. Considering he was originally in seminary school, studying to become a priest, it’s ironic how brutal he became. Would his life have been different if he hadn’t discovered Marxism? Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer.