Joseph Stalin oversaw the Soviet Union’s entry into the Cold War, but the vast majority of the conflict took place after his death. Stalin’s hardline foreign policy in the years immediately after World War II ensured the Cold War began in the late 1940s, but after his death in 1953, other Soviet leaders directed the country until Mikhail Gorbachev agreed the end of the Cold War in 1991.
Origins of the Cold War
The Cold War grew out of the aftermath of World War II. During the conflict, the Soviet Union had allied itself with the United Kingdom and the United States against Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers, but Stalin always aimed to secure postwar Soviet dominance of Europe. Disputes over the Soviet influence in regions lying outside Russia’s boundaries lay at the heart of the Cold War.
The Cold War Begins
Stalin played a crucial role in the beginnings of the Cold War. Historian Vladislav M. Zubok argues in his book “A Failed Empire” that Stalin’s interference in countries outside the areas the Allies had agreed at the 1945 Yalta Conference meant East and West were always likely to clash. In 1946, Stalin reacted strongly to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s assertion that an “iron curtain” had fallen over Europe, dividing a communist East from a capitalist West. He saw Churchill’s speech as “a declaration of war” and created Comintern, a group of Soviet-allied countries spanning eastern Europe.
Stalin in the Cold War
Stalin pursued an aggressive policy during his time as a Cold War leader. He set up and supported communist Comintern governments across Eastern Europe and blockaded East Berlin in 1948. In 1950, Stalin supported communist North Korea’s invasion of its neighbor, United States ally South Korea, an action that led to the Korean War. Stalin also ordered the development of a nuclear program similar to that already under way in the United States, resulting in the detonation of the first Soviet nuclear device in 1949.
The Cold War After Stalin
Stalin died of a stroke in 1953, but this did not mean the end of the Cold War, although it did alter the form it took. His successor, Nikita Krushchev, pursued a less repressive de-Stalinization policy which contributed to attempted revolutions in both Poland and Hungary. Krushchev also maintained a much less aggressive foreign policy; his doctrine of peaceful coexistence diverted the Cold War into spats over missiles and races between scientists to develop high-tech armaments and the space race. However, the Cold War continued until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, almost 40 years after Stalin’s death.
- History.com: Joseph Stalin
- Smithsonian, National Museum of American History: Cold War Timeline, End of the Cold War
- PBS: WWII Behind Closed Doors, Uneasy Allies
- BBC GCSE Bitesize Revision: Soviet Power in Eastern Europe
- Ohio State University, Goldberg Center: Book Review, A Failed Empire
- PBS: Race for the Superbomb, First Soviet Test
- Smithsonian, National Museum of American History: Cold War Timeline, Origins of the Cold War
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Nikita Sergeyevich Krushchev, Leadership of the Soviet Union
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images