Joseph Stalin, whose real name was Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, was born and raised in Gori in what is now the nation of Georgia. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953.
Stalin was raised very religious in the Greek Orthodox Church. He was named after Saint Joseph and was raised to be a priest. His father was a priest and young Joseph spent five years in a Greek Orthodox seminary.
But Stalin's father beat him mercilessly, and Stalin once described his childhood as having been "raised in a poor priest-ridden household." Perhaps this contributed to his decision to become a Marxist revolutionary.
During his time in power, Stalin had a complex relationship with religion. He officially adopted the Russian Communist Party's stance on religion, claiming atheism and continuing the tradition of teaching atheism in schools and propagating the idea that religion was only damaging to a perfect communist society. Stalin even took it further than his predecessor, Lenin, and initiated a nationwide campaign to destroy churches and religious property and even persecute and kill church officials. It is said that under Stalin, the Russian Orthodox Church went from 50,000 to 500 open and operating churches.
Stalin once said:
You know, they are fooling us, there is no God… all this talk about God is sheer nonsense.
But during World War II, Stalin eased up considerably on religion. He allowed for tens of thousands of Russian Orthodox churches to reopen, adopted an official policy of tolerance toward Muslims, and re-established the hierarchy of leadership in the Russian Orthodox Church. There were even rumors that Stalin had reconsidered his own personal relationship to religion when he took a "mysterious retreat" in 1941.
But for all accounts and purposes, Stalin was a hardcore atheist until the day he died.
Stalin, like all Soviet leaders, was a staunch Marxist. But also like all Soviet leaders, he had his own interpretation of the texts that formed the foundation for their belief system. In Stalin's case, he broke from traditional Marxism in various ways.
Marx believed that Communism was a natural reaction to the failure of Capitalism. But by most accounts, Russia hadn't ever moved past feudalism (the precursor to Capitalism in Marxian social philosophy) before the revolution. Stalin seemed to think that was an unimportant detail and felt that the move through Capitalism to Communism could be forced. Under Stalin, Russia underwent massive, jarring industrialization and centralization. Much of this was facilitated by necessity during World War II, but much of it was just forced by coercion and violence.
Stalin's view that Russia could be forcibly brought into the industrial age–and with a Communist ideology–justified his horrific crimes against humanity. Estimates of how many Russians Stalin killed in the process range from 3 million to 60 million. Many were simply shot where they stood, many tortured to death, and many sent to forced labor camps where they died of malnutrition, abuse, or exposure. Stalin once said:
One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.