2013. Vol.4, No.9A1, 1-4
Published Online September 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 1
Psychopathology of Joseph Stalin
Marina Stal
Teacher’s College, Columbia University, New York, USA
Received July 20th, 2013; revised August 18th, 2013; ac c e pted September 12th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Marina Stal. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribu-
tion License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the or i ginal
work is properly cited.
Between 1928 and 1953, Joseph Stalin was the undisputed totalitarian dictator of the former Soviet Union
whose “reign of fear” continues to maintain its egregious reputation. An examination of Stalin’s docu-
mented behaviors attempts to evaluate any signs of psychopathology in accordance with DSM-IV-TR
criteria. Evidence of a troubled upbringing, depression, paranoia, and alcohol abuse suggests psychopa-
thology as an implicating factor behind Stalin’s actions. Utilizing such a perspective may allow for future
distinctions of individuals deemed responsible for horrendous atrocities.
Keywords: Sociopath; Antisocial Personality Disorder; Dictator; Stalin
Rationale for Examining the Psychopathology of
Joseph Stalin
The Holocaust Encyclopedia of the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum provides a concise origin of the term “geno-
In 1944, a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin
(1900-1959) sought to describe Nazi policies of system-
atic murder, including the destruction of the European
Jews. He formed the word “genocide… a coordinated
plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of es-
sential foundations of the life of national groups, with the
aim of annihilating the groups themselve s.” The next year,
the International Military Tribunal held at Nuremberg,
Germany, charged top Nazis with “crimes against human-
ity.” The word “genocide” was included in the indictment.
Subsequent to the Nuremberg Trials, on December 9, 1948,
the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention
and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Since then, the
United Nations, in accordance with the United States and vari-
ous other nations, has attempted to apply the information
known from previous incidences in a way that would prevent
further oppression and death (United Nations, 1951). Unfortu-
nately, there have been more than a number of ethnic, racial,
and/or religious purges throughout the world since, revealing
that perhaps there is a missing link, or overlooked lesson re-
garding the reality of contemporary oppression. Unrest in Sri
Lanka, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, and numerous other locales are
being undermined and categorized as “civil unrest” rather than
genocide (Mamdani, 2007). Perhaps a look at the history of
such actions from a different perspective will present a distinc-
tive point of view.
It is an undesirable, yet firm, reality that individuals who
have obtained power will wish to maintain it; how far some will
go to keep hold of said power is where reality becomes a bit
blurred. Francisco Macias Nguema, the president of Equatorial
Guinea from 1968 to 1979, felt “uneasy” around wealthy, intel-
lectual individuals; as a result, he ordered all who wore specta-
cles killed (Daniels, 2004). Hindsight suggests that Nguema
showed a hint of paranoia, as his beliefs more closely resem-
bled delusions and fear. In another case many are familiar with,
Adolf Hitler proposed a plan to eradicate all those that do not
belong to the Aryan race, a race he believed was ostensibly
greater than others; not many would now judge Hitler as sane,
rather extreme in his delusions (Lothane, 1997).
Why bring up seemingly random cases demonstrating the
psychopathologies of leaders accused of horrendous crimes
such as genocide? One reason is that since there is more than
one example, it is unlikely that it is a mere coincidence, al-
though it is not necessarily the norm. Another reason is that
atrocities such as genocide and mass killings continue to pre-
sent day and because each harnesses its own prejudices and
beliefs, be they political or religious, it is difficult to come to a
common link. In 2008, Stephen K. Baum wrote a book, “The
Psychology of Genocide: Perpetrators, Bystanders, and Rescu-
ers,” in which he proposes the idea that “a lack of maturation
and an abundance of social identity” are leading causes of indi-
viduals that perpetuate such crimes. The infamous studies by
Milgram and Stanford have delved into the possible rationale
for those individuals that supported these actions, and going
back to Freud can create numerous theories regarding all of the
aforementioned individuals. I propose a close psychopatho-
logical examination of one of the most ruthless dictators of the
20th century, Joseph Stalin. A look into his life and how it
formed, or perhaps accentuated, his beliefs and noting links, if
any, to psychopathology, may create a different perspective
from which to address current atrocities. As Stalin once said,
“one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”; perhaps there
are underlying reasons that can reveal the formation of such
contemptuous values.
Examining the Psychopathology of Joseph Stalin
People who have made positive impacts throughout history
are remembered as respectable and those who have made nega-
tive impacts as decadent. A person’s impact is commonly char-
acterized as good or bad by judging the effects of his or her
actions and decisions. Oftentimes, differing viewpoints create
controversy regarding the nature of the impact. Such questions
arise when examining the tremendous influence of Joseph Sta-
lin. Many consider Stalin to be the man accountable for the
drastic modernization and industrialization of the former Soviet
Union (Service, 2001). Others bring attention to the fact that the
mass killings and reign of fear that Stalin fashioned are the
most dominant aspects of his impact. Some believe he did what
any person would do to preserve power, while still others assert
that his personal pathologies were responsible for his actions
(Service, 2001; Conquest, 1991; Trotsky, 1937).
Childhood and Development
Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in
the republic of Georgia around the year 1879, the only surviv-
ing child of Vissarion and Yekaterina Dzhugashvili.
At the time of his birth, Georgia was still a relatively new
Russian annex, and discrepancies regarding the exact date and
location of his birth are partially attributed to the on-going
Georgia-Ossetian conflict. Grigory Zinoviev, later a prominent
figure in Stalin’s political quests, accentuated his background in
describing him as a “bloodthirsty Ossetian.” The significance of
Stalin’s Georgian background manifests itself in numerous
respects throu g hout his life.
Both Vissarion and Yekaterina were listed as serfs, and what
limited information is available regarding Stalin’s childhood
contends that it was of a common peasant’s lifestyle. What such
a childhood entails is violent outbursts following alcohol in-
toxication, generally from the father and aimed at both mother
and child. Strained relationships between fathers and sons,
husbands and wives, and consequently differing goals for chil-
dren set up conflict within families. If one were to adhere to the
psychoanalytic contention that a person’s childhood strongly
influences his or her personality, it is plausible to argue that
Stalin’s violent tendencies developed as a result of his father’s
behavior (Freud & Strachey, 1962); paranoia is said to often-
times enter within a maladaptive relationship with the father
(Shapiro, 1965; Laughlin, 1967; Meissner, 1986). The afore-
mentioned are just a few of numerous theories that may be used
to explain Stalin’s personality, and although there may be
credibility to them, it is important to not overestimate the in-
fluence of childhood environment and attribute this singular
circumstance as the cause of possible psychopathology (Renaud
& Estess, 1961).
Ioseb suffered from a nearly fatal bout with smallpox at age
4 and thereafter had a severely pocked face, which was always
retouched in photographs; blood poisoning at age 9 was
brought on subsequently to being run over by a carriage, an
accident which gave Stalin a permanently disfigured and much
shorter left arm (Birt, 1993). Being subject to such devastating
family conditions, Dzhugashvili’s mother believed that he
would profit from a religiously oriented education, and in 1888
“Soso,” as Stalin was now called, began attendance at the Gori
Church School (Conquest, 1991). Physical defects commonly
affect one’s self-esteem and prosperity, and the aforementioned
physical markings were seen as an added insult to injury, as
Stalin was already apprehensive regarding his 5'4" stature. It is
commonly documented that while at the Gori Church School,
Soso read “The Patricide” by Alexander Kazbegi, in which the
hero, Koba, was the archetypal defender of the “underdog”. It
followed that Ioseb identified with the character of Koba and
demanded that everyone call him “Koba,” a name by which he
was known until the Revolution (Tucker, 1973). Meissner
(1986) notes that the use of “tough-guy” names is not uncom-
mon among paranoids, an action prevalent in Stalin’s life from
a young age.
When Stalin became ten years old, Vissarion took him to
work at a shoe factory, the only record of any manual labor he
encountered; shortly after, Yekaterina intervened and persuaded
both toward the importance of an education and he was re-
enrolled at the Gori Church School (Conquest, 1991). Stalin’s
father was rumored to have passed away shortly after, a result
of a bar-fight in 1909, leaving the family to fend for themselves.
Notwithstanding continued tumultuous circumstances, Stalin
was a good student and was awarded a stipend to attend the
Tiflis Theological Seminary, where it was a hope of his
mother’s that he become a priest (Service, 2001). However, his
time at the Tiflis Theological Seminary exposed him to the
radical ideas of Karl Marx and his contemporaries. Studying
their works provoked Ioseb’s own temperament, already ag-
gravated by abuse, to adopt a radical creed: “the object of any
struggle is victory” (Conquest, 1991). Ioseb then initiated al-
terations in his public persona.
The first part of Dzhugashvili’s transformation was his at-
tempt to eradicate his Georgian heritage. He changed his name
to Joseph Stalin, a Russian name whose stem “stal,” or steel,
was symbolic of his “new” character (Conquest, 1991; Himmer,
1986). Stalin’s makeover promoted him politically, and helped
him maneuver through the ranks of various political parties of
the time. In 1912, Vladimir Lenin chose him to serve on the
first Central Committee of the Bolshevik Part, which enabled
him to play a significant role in the 1917 Bolshevik triumph
(Service, 2001). Although the initial relationship between Stalin
and Lenin seemed mutually beneficial, both had ulterior mo-
tives. While Stalin was using his position to further his own
beliefs, Lenin was alarmed and troubled by certain aspects of
Stalin’s character and personality.
A year prior to his death, Lenin wrote a covert “political tes-
tament” in which he disclosed his worried regarding Stalin:
Stalin is too rude, and this defect, though quite tolerable
in our midst and in dealings among us Communists,
becomes intolerable in a General Secretary. That is why I
suggest that the comrades think about a way to remove
Stalin from that post and appoint in his place another man
who in all respects differs from Comrade Stalin in his
superiority, that is, more tolerant, more loyal, more cour-
teous and more considerate of the comrades, less capri-
cious (p. 84).
As history shows, Lenin’s warnings went largely unheeded
as Stalin continued to gain power and political standing. Stalin
recognized the fact that the people were loyal to Lenin and
therefore, after Lenin’s death, aligned himself closely to him.
He held parades, posted doctored portraits of himself and Lenin
together at various functions, and even commissioned a movie
that depicted Stalin hugging and holding a dying Lenin. When
opposition to Stalin’s political agenda arose, he regarded his
opponents as anti-revolutionary, anti-Leninist, and in that way
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
swayed public opinion against the opposition (Conquest, 1991).
To maintain his image, Stalin was always hailed as the greatest
intellect and creative force in the Soviet Union, perhaps even of
all time , and p ro-St al in pr opa ganda beca me th e norm ( Ran cou r-
Laferriere, 1998: p. 17).
Beginnings of Psychopathology
Underneath a firm façade of power, Stalin found himself
struggling with what he believed to be depression; feelings of
inferiority, alleged threats to his feelings of grandeur along with
various concerns led him to seek help. Vladimir Mikhailovich
Bekhterev, a renowned Russian psychiatrist, was summoned to
assess Stalin’s mental condition (Lerner, Margolin, & Witztum,
2005). After the critical examination that no one but Bekhterev
and Stalin witnessed, Bekhterev said only one word “para-
noiac” (Antonov-Ovseyenko, 1981). Nobody knows exactly what
happened during this examination other than what Bekhterev
disclosed concerning his examination of a “paranoiac with a
dry hand”—a clear allusion to Stalin. It is unknown how Bek-
hterev’s response reached Stalin, but it is presumed that when
Stalin heard about Bekhterev’s opinion, he ordered the death of
the person who held such an unwanted opinion of him (To-
polyansky, 1989). In 1927, Bekhterev died of an unknown
cause, although it is believed that he was poisoned by the order
of Stalin. After his death, his name and works were deleted
completely from textbooks and scientific literature (Lerner,
Margolin, & Witztum, 2005). In 1929, when addressing the
Central Committee concerning his alleged lust for tyrannical
power, Stalin dismissed the idea of his personality being an
issue by claiming that it had “no real consequence” and was a
“trifle” (Tucker, 1974). At the time, the Central Committee
accepted Stalin’s contention that his personality was irrelevant
and inadvertently strengthened his power.
Notwithstanding, Stalin’s rise to power did not satisfy his
desire for more; rather, it unveiled jealous and paranoid char-
acteristics. At this time, Stalin, although claiming to have re-
jected his Georgian background, continued following Georgian
social standards by limiting his distinction between personal
and political relationships with people. He viewed people either
as friends that he could trust, or as enemies that he must fight
and overcome. Stalin was also incredibly driven to feel jealous
of anybody who appeared better than he in any domain, espe-
cially those in which he considered himself eminent (Conquest,
1990). Although he was unwilling to accept it, Stalin’s behavior
exemplified his previous diagnosis of pathological paranoia, an
idea supported previously by Meissner (1986).
DSM-IV Assessment
Bekhterev never explicitly stated the complete diagnosis he
gave Stalin, however, comparing his opinion with a logical
analysis of Stalin’s behavior allows for a more specific conclu-
sion. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-
IV-TR) characterizes the core feature of a paranoid personality
disorder as a “pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of oth-
ers… motives interpreted as malevolent” (2000). People diag-
nosed with paranoid personality disorder are frequently suspi-
cious that other are attempting to exploit them, are preoccupied
with doubts about the loyalty of friends and associates, and are
reluctant to confide in others with fear that the information will
be used against them. They also perceive attacks on their char-
acter and reputation that are only evident to themselves (DSM-
IV-TR, 2000). Using the DSM-IV-TR criteria to characterize
the behavior of Joseph Stalin clearly demonstrates that his con-
duct and rationale is of a persona with paranoid personality
Stalin’s paranoia and desire to stay in power caused him to
employ various schemes in order to control the thinking of his
fellow politicians as well as the citizens of the U. S. S. R. Al-
though immoral, he was an intelligent man who recognized that
the mind must be forged at an early age (Tucker, 1974). To
follow this ideology and ensure that all children under his re-
gime would be conformed to the Communist lifestyle as early
as possible, he created an interest group for them. In the “Pio-
neers,” membership was not voluntary; rather, it was mandated.
Through this group, children were taught about Lenin and Sta-
lin’s “greatness” and the need for a Communist lifestyle (Ser-
vice, 2001). They were also encouraged to bestow the same
information to their friends and families and to report any dis-
parate activity and thinking to a specialized police unit created
by Stalin. Stalin enforced rigorous laws that condemned disap-
proval of the government by enforcing severe penalties; those
that revealed individuals who did not agree with the Commu-
nist agenda were rewarded (Conquest, 1990).
Much of Stalin’s regime concentrated on appeasing his para-
noia, compounded by excessive consumption of alcohol. This
led him to act impulsively and dispose of anyone who did not
fit his idea for a “greater Soviet Union” (Conquest, 1991). He
was responsible for the extermination of various social groups
and political leaders of opposing parties; most of his appointed
cabinet was “disposed of” within several years of their ap-
pointments (Tucker, 1974). In spite of this, his behavior and
perceived beliefs did not cause him to question his idealized
image of himself. While failure to perceive one’s flaws is a
common human trait, Stalin’s case was extreme due to his in-
tolerance of anything short of perfection in himself. This caused
him to control the information that others received regarding
him and his regime, by means of intimidation and altering lit-
erature (Clarfiend, 2002). As previously mentioned, even pic-
tures were doctored as to conceal any physical flaws he may
have had. Due to the harsh consequences Stalin instigated for
any who contradicted him, most people learned to accept the
favored opinion rather than risk punishment or death.
Nikolai Bukharin, a former ally of Stalin who was later re-
nounced as result of a disagreement c o n c e r ning collectivi zation,
furthered the concept of Stalin’s paranoid insecurity. He ob-
served that Stalin was unhappy at not being able to convince
everyone, including himself, that he was greater than everyone
else was (Volkogonov, 1988). The paranoia that Stalin experi-
enced was not limited towards others, rather it included him;
this is allegedly caused by his suspicion that he is not as great
as he believes himself to be. This made Stalin dependent on the
attitude of others, believing that if they see him as a hero-figure,
then it is so (Volkogonov, 1988). This was one of the reasons
for his control over the media, literature and people’s rights.
Stalin ignored the fact that he was compelling them to think he
was great, and wallowed in the illusion of people’s admiration
for him (Conquest, 1990).
Culmination(s) of Psychopathology
The combination of paranoid personality disorder, alcohol
abuse, intelligence, and a cruel nature created the foundation
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for Stalin’s infamous mass killings. Stalin controlled everybody
through fear—fear of death, fear of torture, fear of exile. His
belief that everyone was plotting against him contributed to him
forcing “confessions” out of many innocent people; he felt that
if he had a scapegoat, then he was closer to eliminating the
prospect of his defeat (Volkogonov, 1988). To ensure his power,
he enforced the “Russification” of the Soviet Union, which in-
cluded rejecting Christianity’s God and creating the Secret
Police. It is alleged that Stalin imprisoned religious leaders that
believed in Christianity’s God because “he was a godlike figure
to himself” and did not want competition, even from religion
(Tucker, 1974). People began fearing the Secret Police more as
they were now prosecuting people for religious reasons as well
as political ones; they would now torture people psychologi-
cally as well as physically (Tucker, 1974).
The methods Joseph Stalin implemented throughout his rise
and maintenance of power of the Communist Party in the for-
mer Soviet Union are clearly linked to his psychological pa-
thologies. Stalin’s vicious tactics, coupled with his depression,
extreme paranoia, and liberal alcohol use elevated his image to
that of more that just a dictator; he became the face of evil. His
name became synonymous with Hitler as a merciless tyrant
who had little concern for the value of human life. The effects
Stalin had on the former Soviet Union are still present today,
not only in the new Russian Federation but also around the
world. The life and impact of Joseph Stalin is an unmistakable
example of the outcome of an altered psyche, unfortunate
childhood, and a destructive persona.
Ramifications of Examining Psychopathology
This paper has not touched on war, although it is an ex-
tremely violent act, due to its emphasis on the actions under-
taken by single leaders. Arguably, no single individual has
committed atrocities such as genocide single-handedly, but the
strong beliefs and pathologies they may possess have motivated
them to bestow their ideas unto others. The psychopathology of
Joseph Stalin is a single case study attempting to find reasons
other than political and economic motivations for such horrid
actions. As mentioned in the beginning, Nguema demonstrated
a fairly extreme paranoia, a psychopathology that led to the
purging of many. Perhaps looking at genocide and similar
atrocities by way of the instigator’s psychopathology will pre-
sent a new mode of prediction, and prevention.
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