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A placard with a photo of Joseph Stalin

29 things you didn't know about Joseph Stalin

We all know Stalin as one of history's most fearsome dictators, but what isn't as well documented is his love of flowers and John Wayne movies.

Image: Ksanti /

There's one thing we can be sure about: Joseph Stalin was terrifying. The man was a ruthless, unrelenting dictator who killed millions of his own people without a second thought, and his mark on history has been indelible.

That said there are still a few things left about Stalin that might be a little surprising. Below are some lesser-known facts about the Russian leader, including an answer to the question: did Stalin envision Planet of the Apes?

1. His name means man of steel

It's true: Joseph Stalin was actually born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili (on December 18, 1878) and changed his name from his original in his 30s. Why Stalin? Because it means, man of steel. So take that, Superman. (Or don't – though it would certainly make the new Superman reboot more interesting.)

2. His birthday is up for debate

According to official accounts, Stalin was born on December 18, 1879. However, the Old Style Julian calendar (the Russian calendar) marks his birthday as December 6. Stalin himself, however, changed his birthday to December 21, as well as his birth year (allegedly) to 1881, to throw off tsarist officials.

3. He left school because . . . of multiple theories

Stalin is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a murderous dictator (wrapped in a mustache). And adding to this mystery is the question of why Stalin left school: according to some reports, the future leader couldn't pay his tuition. Others claim he was expelled for his anti-Nicholas II political views. And another states he missed too many exams. And arguably, we will never actually know.

4. His ape army is likely a myth

On top of being a man in desperate need of incarceration and rehabilitation, Stalin was also a man who was misquoted. Claims (courtesy of the Journal of Creation) exist that the dictator wanted to create an army of half-men, half-apes to restore Russia to glory, but 'Scientific America' has proven that the sole quote tying Stalin to physiologist Il'ya Ivanov isn't documented anywhere else. (Though Ivanov's humanzee experiments are very real, and very awful.)

5. He loved movies

Stalin was a film guy. So much so that each of his houses had a private movie theatre, which inspired him to eventually rule by cinema. He was also pretentious: according to the Communist Party archives, the leader considered himself a producer, director, and screenwriter, as well as the ultimate censor. (Literally: he did everything from song lyrics and writing to coaching actors.) Thank all higher powers that be that this man did not live to have a film blog.

6. And he loved John Wayne more

Despite the overt western – literal and metaphorical – themes of John Wayne films, the archives also show that Stalin fancied himself a cowboy. Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable were his favourites, as was director John Ford and of course, The Duke. (Because who doesn't like John Wayne?) What he didn't like: French kissing and nudity, which is why he banned kissing in films for a while.

7. His go-to wine was Georgian – and it's making a comeback

Stalin's favourite wine was Khvanchkara (a Georgian wine with raspberry notes), and is making a comeback after Russia banned Georgian wine in 2006 due to its poor quality. However, Georgia's since become a go-to for wine connoisseurs, and as per a 2012 interview, its winemakers are grateful for the push to up their quality. (With no help from Stalin, obviously.)

8. His favourite musician was pianist Maria Yudina

According to a passage from The Ladder of the Beatitudes (by Jim Forest), Stalin's favourite musician was pianist Maria Yudina, who he liked so much that he insisted on a record of her performing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, which he'd heard performed live on the radio. Unfortunately for them, they hadn't made a recording. But because Stalin insisted on a physical copy, she and an orchestra submitted, but not without being sure that if they didn't, they'd probably all be killed.

9. He was a small man with big ideas

Stalin only came in at 5'4, which is what earned President Truman's nickname, the little squirt. That said, this photo of Truman with Stalin and Churchill either doesn't do that nickname justice, or makes the three world leaders look equally small.

Slightly related: Stalin was actually super self-conscious about the way he looked, having a shorter left arm and scars from smallpox.

10. He was responsible for the death of at least 20 million people

He said it himself: One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic, and Stalin sure left one. Throughout his reign (of terror), the dictator was responsible for the death of 20 million citizens, and 20 million soldiers and civilians who died in WWII. He also imprisoned, tortured, exiled, starved, forced persons into labour.

11. He was run over as a child

As a child, Stalin was hit by a horse-drawn carriage. He required surgery which left him with one arm shorter than the other. He was very sensitive about this for the rest of his life. Luckily for him, people didn’t tend to bring it up in his presence for fear of being executed.

12. He loved flowers

Stalin developed a love for flowers in his youth, which seems surprising for a man known for being a cold-hearted dictator. In later life, he became a keen gardener and showed great interest in agricultural matters.

13. He had a way with words

In his younger days, Stalin wrote poetry. Several of his poems were published in his native Georgia and proved so popular that children were still studying them into the 1970s.

14. He was part of a forbidden book club

Stalin was a member of a secret forbidden books club at the school where he was studying to become a priest. Among the banned books the club read was Nikolay Chernyshevsky's What Is To Be Done?, which was pro-revolutionary and was a great influence on the man who later took part in a revolution for real.

15. He worked as a weatherman

In 1899, Stalin briefly worked as a meteorologist at an observatory in Georgia. The night job paid 20 roubles a month and involved not doing very much, which left the young Stalin with plenty of time to read.

16. Trotsky had an unflattering nickname for him

Stalin’s first major position was General Secretary of the Communist Party. Leon Trotsky, who was no fan of Stalin, gave him the derisory nickname ‘Comrade Index Card’. Stalin had Trotsky murdered in Mexico City in 1940, though whether that was because of the nickname remains unclear.

17. He was a violent criminal

While living in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1907, Stalin was the leader of a crime gang called ‘The Outfit’. The gang ran protection rackets and a counterfeiting operation. They also committed robberies and kidnapped the children of wealthy locals.

18. He pulled off a daring heist

Stalin was one of the ringleaders of the Tiflis bank robbery. To gain money to fund their political activities, the Bolsheviks attacked and robbed a heavily guarded stagecoach with guns and grenades. 40 people were killed and a further 50 were injured, and Stalin’s gang got away with 241,000 rubles.

19. He almost served in World War I

Stalin was conscripted into the Russian Army in 1916 and could have fought in World War I. However, a medical examiner ruled him unfit for service because of his shortened arm.

20. He even let his family get killed

Stalin’s son Yakov was captured by the Nazis while serving as an artillery officer for the Red Army in World War II. Proving that his heart of stone extended to his immediate family, Stalin refused to negotiate his son’s release, and Yakov died in a concentration camp in 1943.

21. He was named ‘Man of the Year’

Stalin was made Time Man of the Year not once, but twice. Admittedly, this was before the extent of his crimes against humanity were known, but even still, it was a questionable decision to put him on the front cover for a second time in 1948.

22. He was terrified of germs

In his later years, Stalin’s paranoia led him to become a hypochondriac - a condition common to many dictators. He also had a fear of being poisoned. As a result, he had a man called Sasha Egnatashvili taste all his food before he ate it. Stalin’s nickname for Egnatashvili was ‘The Rabbit’.

23. He enjoyed practical jokes

Despite his reputation for being a ruthless tyrant, Stalin was noted for having a mischievous sense of humour. He particularly enjoyed playing practical jokes, such as leaving tomatoes on the seats of Politburo members and laughing his head off when they sat on them.

24. His daughter defected

His youngest child and only daughter was Svetlana Iosifovna Alliluyeva. She made international headlines when she defected to the United States in 1967. She changed her name to Lana Peters and died in 2011, the last of Stalin’s six children to pass away.

25. His most famous quote could be inaccurate

One of the most famous quotes attributed to Stalin is, ‘A single death is a tragedy, a million dead is a statistic.’ There's just one problem - there’s no evidence he ever said it.

26. He might have had a brain disease

It is strongly suspected that Stalin suffered from a brain condition called atherosclerosis. The condition causes fatty tissue to build up in the brain, and this may explain why he was capable of appalling cruelty and was crippled by paranoia.

27. He was an unlikely nominee

One would have thought that a man responsible for the mass murder of millions of his own people would not be in line for any sort of aspirational prize. Believe it or not, Stalin was actually nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - not once, but twice.

28. He may have contributed to his own death

In 1953, Stalin accused seven esteemed Kremlin doctors of plotting against the Soviet Union and had them arrested and tortured. Unfortunately for Stalin, those very same doctors were not around to save his life when he had a stroke and died. The doctors who survived were later released.

29. He might have been poisoned

Some people believe Stalin did not die of a stroke but was actually assassinated to prevent a nuclear war with the United States. It is suggested that the dictator was poisoned with the blood-thinning drug warfarin during a dinner with members of the Politburo.