Stalin’s Diminutive Size
While Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality, subsequent statues, and certain photos and paintings may have you thinking he was a giant of a man, in truth the former Soviet leader and glorious moustache owner was only around 5 feet 5 inches tall (165 cm), give or take an inch.
While this is decidedly below average in many regions of the world for men today, in his own time, it wasn’t quite as much so, with the average height of men in Russia as Stalin ventured into adulthood only ringing in at just under 5 feet 8 inches (173 cm) tall. Despite only being a little below average, Stalin went to some rather extreme lengths to hide his true stature, as well as other less literal shortcomings, from the general public.
Stalin’s propensity to try to make himself appear taller was no doubt spurred on by comments such as the one United States President Harry Truman (who was approximately 5 feet 8 inches tall) made, referring to Stalin as “little squirt”. Likewise, Grigol Uratadze, a man who was imprisoned alongside Stalin during his time as a revolutionary, described him as unassuming with a “creeping way of walking, taking short steps…”, while Milovan Đilas, a former Yugoslavian politician mentioned that he was “small” with an “ungainly build” in a later book describing their encounters.
Along with his below average stature, Stalin’s left arm was shorter than his right with a slightly withered hand due to an injury he sustained at age 12 when he was hit by a horse and ultimately suffered severe blood poisoning. Although Stalin retained most of the use of his left arm throughout his life, it was noticeably more stiff and clumsy than his preferred appendage and he was reportedly unable to fully extend his elbow from that age onward. He mostly hid this injury by folding his hands over one another when taking photographs or by putting his left hand into his pocket.
On top of this, Stalin’s face was covered in pockmarks from a bout of near fatal smallpox he contracted at age 7, which he hid in later life with, among other methods, his gloriously maintained facial hair.
Despite all this, Stalin’s cult of personality painted a very different picture, as did the actual artists who painted him. Presumably because of the fact that displeasing Stalin at the height of his power was a great way to find yourself no longer breathing (and possibly even erased from all records, see Bonus Facts below), most every “official” photo, painting and sculpture of the Father of Nations depicts him as being a man of gigantic size who towered over his subordinates.
Stalin also insisted that Mikheil Gelovani, an actor given Stalin’s personal blessing to portray him in films and other propaganda, not accept roles that would require him to portray “a mere mortal” because of how similar in appearance the two men were (though Gelovani was reportedly much taller).
To maintain this illusion in face-to-face meetings, Stalin also took to wearing boots with cleverly masked, significantly raised heels and would often pose for photos while standing on a raised platform or positioned well in front of or above those around him. Of course, few of Stalin’s subordinates would dare ever make fun of Stalin’s penchant for trying to look taller, and the propaganda machine continually depicting him as having “characteristics akin to those of a god,” according to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, no doubt helped them rationalize Stalin’s need to maintain the image. However, the same cannot be said for the likes of President Truman and Winston Churchill who both found the lengths Stalin went to make himself appear taller amusing when they met with him. (And lest you think Truman was just trying to be insulting with the “little squirt” quip, he also had a lot of positive things to say about Stalin after their 1945 meeting, including writing in his diary on July 17th that “He [Stalin] is honest, but smart as hell.“)
Besides the high heels, platforms in photographs, and exaggerated stature in paintings, Stalin’s private residence in Sochi was specially constructed with his frame in mind and everything in it, from the chairs to the staircase were made slightly smaller than usual so that Stalin could use them perfectly comfortably and otherwise appear especially tall in stature. Even his pool was only a little over four feet deep at its maximum depth because he couldn’t swim (he did, however, enjoy taking little walks back and forth in it) and didn’t want to be submerged if he ventured into the deep end.
Other features of Stalin’s mansion, which you can still tour today, include a smaller than regulation size billiards table complete with a smaller than average, weighted cue the dictator used to make his shots more powerful. Not that he needed it because, once in power, Stalin reportedly never lost a single game of billiards against any of his guards… (And if that’s not just propaganda akin to Kim Jong Il’s claim that he shot 11 hole-in-ones his first time ever playing golf, it no doubt had something to do with the fact that Stalin could have any of his guards killed if they displeased him.)
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- Beyond having numerous people killed for various reasons, Stalin was also famous for erasing any record of people he didn’t like from photos and official documents (a practice the Ancient Romans referred to as Damnatio Memoriae), such as the picture on the right. The disappearing man is Nikolai Yezkov, one time very powerful head of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). In his post there, he presided over numerous tortures and mass-executions during the Great Purge, but later fell out of favor and himself was tortured until he admitted to being a traitor; after this, he was purged. Once this happened, he became “The Vanishing Commisar” with records of him, including in photographs, suddenly disappearing, which was no small feat given the high profile position Yezkov had previously held and the lack of Photoshop. 😉
- After his presidency, Harry Truman returned to his home in Missouri with his only income his old army pension, which was no more than $112.56 per month or about $982 today (largely as a response to his somewhat impoverished situation, Congress later passed the Former Presidents Act to give U.S. President’s pensions). Truman had numerous offers from large corporations for work, but turned them all down, stating: “I knew that they were not interested in hiring Harry Truman, the person, but what they wanted to hire was the former President of the United States. I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and the dignity of the office of the Presidency.”
- Another famed leader who is equally famous for being short of stature, Napoleon Bonaparte, actually wasn’t, at least by the standards of the day and region he lived in. The myth that he was short stems primarily from the fact that he is listed as 5 feet 2 inches tall at the time of his death. However, this is 5 feet 2 inches in French units. In modern international units, he was just shy of 5 feet 7 inches. Now I know you are saying, “Well, that is still pretty short for a man”. That is true by modern day standards in certain places in the world, such as the United States. However, at the time in France, the average height for an adult male was about 5 feet 5 inches in modern international units. So in fact, he was slightly above average in height for his day. Despite this fact, Napoleon is primarily remembered for two things; being a master tactician and being short. The so called “Napoleon Complex” named after him, describes men who have an inferiority complex or more aptly “Short Man Syndrome”.
- Stalin’s mansion also boasts a cinema, complete with a bulletproof sofa in which Stalin used to enjoy watching American cowboy movies that were translated in real time by the commissar of cinema, Ivan Bolshakov, who only spoke broken, fractured English- much to the amusement of Stalin and his guests.
- At least according to one of the mansion’s tour guides, Anna Hovantseva, Stalin absolutely insisted that his mansion didn’t have any carpet purely so that he could “hear people coming”. While tour guides aren’t exactly known for the accuracy of their “facts”, Stalin was notoriously paranoid, and even had the exterior walls of his mansion painted the same shade of green as the trees outside to help camouflage the building from the air. Beyond that, the exterior walls of the building are approximately 2.3 ft thick (70 cm) for security reasons.
- Stalin was born, loseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, but later changed his name to Stalin evoking the Russian word “Stal” which means steel, which he felt was more powerful and intimidating. Another famous dictator who changed his name to help in his rise to power was the aforementioned Kim Jong Il, who was born Yuri Irsenovich Kim.
- Born a native Georgian, Stalin attempted to disguise this fact in later life, painting himself as a Russian man through and through.
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