Stalin and the Great Terror: Can Mental Illness Explain His Violent Behavior?

by Rachael Allen


On December 1, 1934 Sergei Kirov, head of the Leningrad branch of the Communist Party, was assassinated in his office. Initially, it was believed that Joseph Stalin ordered his killing. But why? Earlier in the year at elections for the Central Committee, Kirov supposedly received significantly fewer negative votes than Stalin did, thereby demoting Stalin from General Secretary to simply Secretary. Stalin regarded Kirov as a serious enemy, especially when he formed an anti-Stalin group. Stalin wasted no time allowing people to believe it was he who had Kirov murdered. He quickly took revenge upon other enemies, Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev, by implicating them in Kirov’s death. They agreed to accept responsibility in return for a light sentence. In 1936, they were retried and both condemned to death. This intensely violent moment is an important point in Stalin’s Great Terror that he inflicted upon the Soviet Union in the late 1930s.

As is seen in the cases of Kamenev and Zinoviev, Stalin left no room for opposition within his party. Whether a party member was truly a threat or not, Stalin left no room for contemplation. He simply nipped the perceived problem in the bud through murder. Stalin’s brutish behavior towards party members quickly extended outside the confines of party leadership. It extended to people like the kulaks, and many nationalities faced harsh deportations. He even purged the Red Army at a time in which the Soviet Union was engaged in international conflict.

There is no question that Stalin’s purges were violent and savage. The question that needs to be asked is whether a mental illness can explain Stalin’s ability to engage in such behavior. Since the end of his life there has been speculation that a mental illness contributed to Stalin’s brutishness. Because Stalin was not diagnosed during his life, we can never be sure. However, as many of the following sources do, we can apply known theories and symptoms of mental illnesses to Stalin’s behavior in order to form an explanation for his violence. Although Stalin likely displayed the signs of mental illness at all points in his life, the period of the Great Terror greatly exaggerated these symptoms, which is why this guide covers that period specifically.

This guide first includes biographical information on Stalin and background information on The Great Terror. It then includes a primary source (diaries of a Stalin physician) and supporting web articles. There are also several journal articles and a book in which the authors apply psychological theories to evaluate Stalin’s behavior. Finally, there is a journal article in which the author defends another reason besides mental illness to explain Stalin’s behavior.

Biographical Information

This is a brief but fairly detailed biography of Stalin from It mentions the issues he faced during his childhood including smallpox, a deformed arm, and an extremely dysfunctional family. These are important details to know in an analysis of Stalin’s mental state later in his life. It then quickly summarizes how he ascended to General Secretary. There is also a brief explanation of his purges which began within the party but extended to ordinary people too. The biography also mentions Stalin’s failings in the Soviet Union’s dealings with the German invasion.

More helpful but simple biographical information can be found on the Jewish Virtual Library. It is organized by categories including childhood and early years, rise to power, and purges and mass murders. Although this isn’t a very extensive biography, it makes it easier to understand Stalin by breaking up his life into such categories.

The Great Terror provides a short summary of Stalin’s terror during the late 1930s. It hits important points including the show trials of Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev following the murder of Sergei Kirov. This website also provides video from the 1938 trial of the Anti-Soviet Trotskyist Center which is a useful tool in understanding Stalin’s show trials.

A History of Modern Russia by Robert Service is the textbook for this class but has a chapter devoted to Stalin’s Great Terror. This is a more detailed and comprehensive account of Stalin’s purges starting with members of his party and moving to people outside his party, anyone who might leave a trace of anti-Soviet sentiment. It is helpful in understanding how widespread Stalin’s purges became, as well as how chaotic and confusing it became. Service makes clear by the end of this chapter that Stalin meant to leave no one in doubt about the consequences of rebellious behavior.

Service, Robert. “Terror Upon Terror (1934-1938)” in A History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-First Century.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Primary Source Evidence of Mental Illness in Stalin

This is an article from the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, published in 2011. It includes an excerpt from the diaries of Stalin’s physician, Alexander Myasnikov. In his diaries he claims that Stalin had a mental illness. He says that Stalin suffered from atherosclerosis, the hardening of arteries, could have been a factor in Stalin’s decision-making and terrifying actions. Mental illness in Stalin has been hard to prove, but these diary excerpts that were kept hidden since 1953, help back up the theories of those who believe Stalin did suffer from mental illness. The only problem with this source is that it includes only excerpts not the entire diary, which could not be found online.

Studies of Stalin and Mental Illness

“Personality and Foreign Policy: The Case of Stalin,” which appeared in the journal Political Psychology is an excellent source in understanding the theory that Stalin’s terrorizing behavior stemmed from paranoia. The author, Raymond Birt, explains that paranoia often begins during childhood in a situation in which the child feels both dependent on and threatened by the father. Stalin indeed experienced this situation with his drunken and abusive father. Birt claims his behavior while in power is indicative of a paranoid need to protect his narcissistic ego from external threats. This journal article is a good source because it explains how paranoia develops and then connects it to Stalin’s case. It is easy to understand and makes a strong case for mental illness in Stalin.

Birt, Raymond. “Personality and Foreign Policy: The Case of Stalin,” Political Psychology 14.4 (1993): 607-625.

“Why Tyrants Go Too Far: Malignant Narcissism and Absolute Power,” which also in appeared in Political Psychology compares Stalin, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein. The author, Betty Glad, claims that each show grandiosity, underlying insecurity, cruelty, and ultimately flawed reality. Glad applied a series of tests to the behaviors of these tyrants. She says Stalin clearly had a basic inferiority complex, and any sort of criticism was a threat to him. One theory is that Stalin was a manic depressive that was out of touch with reality and lacking constructive ambitions. Glad’s application of tests to all three of these tyrants is useful in understanding Stalin’s behavior in relation to the behavior of other tyrants we are familiar with.

Glad, Betty. “Why Tyrants Go Too Far: Malignant Narcissism and Absolute Power,” Political Psychology 23.1 (2002): 1-37.

In this news article in The Hour, this reporter summarizes an article put out by a Soviet Stalin biographer in which he questions whether Stalin may have had a “spiritual illness.” This article is good because it can direct one to the actual article this biographer wrote (which after searching couldn’t be found online.)

Smale, Alison. “In biography of Soviet writer mental health of Stalin questioned.” The Hour, December 10, 1987.

In this essay by Robert C. Tucker studies the theory of totalitarianism, specifically by looking at the cases of Hitler and Stalin. Both leaders demonstrated psychiatric conditions which would be designated as paranoid. Tucker says that their needs as paranoidal people were powerful motivating factors in dictatorial decision making and were not confined to their personal lives. This is helpful in understanding how Stalin’s condition influenced his actions during his Great Terror. It also puts in to perspective the differences between the totalitarianism of Stalin’s reign and of those before and after him.

Tucker, Robert C. “The Dictator and Totalitarianism.” In Political Leadership: A Source Book, edited by Barbara Kellerman, 49-57. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.

Another Explanation for Stalin’s behavior

In “Soviet Foreign Policy: Mental Alienation or Universal Revolution,” John Hodgson uses three case studies to support the idea that Soviet actions were always defensive and not offensive in trying to achieve world domination. He says there is much evidence that the Soviets believed a conflict between the communists and capitalists was inevitable, so actions like Stalin’s were part of the effort to safeguard their values and beliefs. This is a helpful source because it gives another explanation to contrast those which claim Stalin did have some type of mental disorder.

Hodgson, John H. “Soviet Foreign Policy: Mental Alienation or Universal Revolution,” The Western Political Quarterly 24.4 (1971): 653-665.