Boy, is this episode in my wheelhouse. I’ve done a Russian history podcast for the past ten years as many of you know and my other idea for a podcast aside from this one was to do one on the American Mafia.
Let’s begin with the man whose mother wanted him to be a Russian Orthodox priest, Joseph Djugashvili, known to most of the world as Joseph Stalin. According to the official Soviet history, he was born on December 18, 1879, but the real year was 1878. His father, Besarion, was an abusive drunk with his mother, Keke was a deeply religious woman. They would nickname Joseph Soso, one of many monikers he would get over his lifetime.
During his childhood, he suffered through two incidents that would affect him throughout his adulthood. The first was living through a bout of smallpox which was to scar his face and the second was being hit by a carriage which caused his left arm to be disabled. Stalin would hide the deformity for the rest of his life.
During his teenage years, the future Stalin studied in a seminary in Tiflis, Georgia at the urging of his mother and his professors in school as he was considered an excellent student. Still, seminary life was not something he relished even with his good grades. Stalin was more interested in the revolutionary experience that was sweeping the country. It is here that Koba, the new nickname emerged after reading Alexander Kazbegi’s book, The Patricide. Stalin was also becoming enamored with the political theory of Marxism.
Stalin would meet a number of radicals in his early years, Lenin being one of the most influential. The Bolshevik party and their ideology interested Koba. Needing to help fund their plans to overthrow the Romanov’s eventually, Stalin put together a gang to rob banks. The Menshevik faction of the communists was appalled at Stalin’s tactics as one of the robberies cost the lives of 40 people. They even voted to have him expelled. Knowing much about his personality, I guarantee Stalin would remember the vote and would take his revenge someday.
The future leader of the Soviet Union was arrested numerous times by the Russian secret police known as the Okhrana, but he managed to get out of jail or exile somewhat easily. There are rumors that Stalin was a double agent, something that many in the revolutionary movement were guilty of.
With the breakout of World War I, Stalin was conscripted to fight with the Russian army, but he was deemed medically incapable of serving. Post Russian Revolution in 1917, the future Vozhd, or father of the country would move up the ranks of the Bolshevik party and would edit their newspaper, Pravda. Over the coming months, only Leon Trotsky and Stalin, who had taken that name meaning man of steel, could meet with Lenin without an appointment.
Lenin did not trust Stalin as he viewed him as being too crude and insensitive. He offered to give Trotsky the opportunity to take over for him, but Leon thought his being Jewish was a hindrance to the revolution and declined. He would pay for that position with his life.
After Lenin’s death, Stalin began to consolidate power in his allies and his hands. Being an ally of Stalin could be a life-threatening concept. Men like Alexei Rykov, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin, and Grigori Zinoviev would find out the hard way. Getting rid of Trotsky was his first act, but all of those men aforementioned would eventually be executed after a show trial. Millions more would meet a similar fate.
The first brutal plan set forth by Stalin to move the Soviet Union away from an agricultural country to a more industrialized one was the policy of collectivization. To get all of the peasants to work together for the good of the people, Stalin had to get rid of the middle-class, better off members of that class, the kulaks. These enemies of the state were the focus of the new Red Terror. Hundreds of thousands were killed or sent to gulags in Siberia.
Ukraine was a sore spot for Stalin as they were not on board the Bolshevik train. As I mentioned in episode five on the Holodomor, a man-made famine was put together by Stalin and his men that would break the back of resistance of the peasants causing the deaths of another two million people.
Stalin saw enemies of the state everywhere. The Old Bolshevik’s who helped overthrow the Provisional Government were targeted as were the hierarchy of the Soviet Military. When one of Stalin’s top associates, Sergei Kirov was assassinated in 1934, something known as the Great Terror was unleashed on the Soviet population. How many people were executed on orders from Stalin and his henchmen will never be known, but what we are sure of, it was well over a million, probably closer to 5-6.
World War II was to provide a halt to the mass persecutions, but it did open up the Soviet Union to invasion from Germany, their erstwhile allies, because of all of the generals and military higher-ups that Stalin ordered executed. After winning the war at a terrible cost of human life, Stalin began to build a bock of nations, under his control to help spread the concept of communism.
As the post-war years went on, Stalin’s health began to deteriorate, and he became more and more paranoid, especially of those closest to him like Vyacheslav Molotov, one of his oldest friends. One plan to begin another purge in the USSR was known as the Doctors’ Plot which alleged that Jewish doctor’s in Moscow was planning to murder senior government members including Stalin. He began a very anti-Semitic program involving deportations to the gulags which included Polina Molotova, Vyacheslav’s wife.
I’ve done a lot of digging into Stalin’s plans for his country before he died on March 5, 1953, and came across many disturbing things. It looked like he was about to purge the senior members of the Politburo, the head committee running the Soviet government. There are also hints that he was willing to start World War III against the west, especially Europe and his main enemy, the United States. The war likely would have caused the deaths of tens or hundreds of millions of people, but honestly, it is likely that Stalin really didn’t care.
Viewed by some as a hero, even to this day, Joseph Stalin is seen by most people as one of the greatest monsters of all time. If you want to learn more about him and have the time, I highly recommend the book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It is marvelously written and goes into great detail about Stalin’s life. Or, you can head on over to my other podcast, Russian Rulers History, and search of the episodes about him. I have lots.
Next up is the Sicilian-American mobster who led the crime family named after himself, Carlo Gambino.
Born in Palermo, Sicily on August 24, 1902, to a well-off family who was part of the Sicilian Mafia. While a teenager, he carried out a number of murders per orders from bosses. Benito Mussolini and his fascists began to make headway in Italian and Sicilian politics with an anti-Mafia platform. Gambino’s family knew it was time for their boy to head towards America where things would be safer. Carlo Gambino arrived in Norfolk Virginia on December 23, 1921, at the age of nineteen. He was able to hook up with his cousins, the Castellanos who was part of the mob family run by Salvatore “Toto” D’Aquila.
It is here that Carlo would meet many Italian and Jewish mobsters who would climb up the crime ladder with him over the coming decades. Included in his new buddies, known as the “Young Turks” would be Joe Adonis, Albert Anastasia who we met in episode 12, Frank Costello, Vito Genovese, Meyer Lansky, Gaetano Lucchese, Charles “Lucky” Luciano from episode 6, Frank Scalice, and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. These young mafioso members would bounce around the New York/New Jersey area committing robberies, set up illegal gambling operations along with extortion of local businesses.
With the coming of Prohibition in 1920, alcohol became the big money earner for the American Mafia and Carlo Gambino and his buddies. Bootlegging as it is known was highly lucrative, but also very competitive. The battle over territories would lead to the Castellammarese War between the leaders of two gangs. One was led by Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria and the other by Salvatore Maranzano. First, Masseria got rid of Gambino’s boss, Salvatore D’Aquila in 1928. The Young Turks saw that the war between the two Mustache Pete’s was hurting business as well as putting their lives at risk.
First, Masseria, who was the new head of Gambino’s family was assassinated, then Maranzano was taken out with Lucky Luciano setting up a new Mafia administration known as the Commission. Carlo Gambino was by now a capo under Commission member Vincent Mangano. He was a big earner for his family which made him quite popular. He remained in the bootlegging racket even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but Gambino found a great new little crime niche, trading in ration tickets which was used to divvy up scare goods during the years of World War II. He became a millionaire during this period. Joe Valachi, a low-level mobster, would testify in 1963 in front of the US Senate that “Him and his brother Paul… made over a million from ration stamps during the war. The stamps came out of the OPA’s offices. First, Carlo’s boys would steal them. Then, when the government started hiding them in banks, Carlo made contact, and the OPA men sold him the stamps. He really got rich on that.”
Albert Anastasia, the underboss of the Mangano family, never got along with his boss, so it has been said, that he ordered the murder of both Philip and Vincent Mangano in 1951. This moved the ambitious Carlo Gambino into the underboss spot. Many have viewed Carlo as a benevolent and sweet old man over the years, but don’t let his outward persona fool you. His crew was a nasty bunch, and if anyone would ever insult Gambino, he was a dead man, just ask Dominick “Mimi” Scialo who harassed him. A few days later, Mimi was found dead, encased in a concrete floor at a social club in Brooklyn.
Anastasia, as we saw in the episode about him, was increasingly becoming unhinged. By 1957, fellow crime boss Vito Genovese convinced other mobsters and Carlo Gambino that his boss needed to go. On October 25, 1957, Anastasia was gunned down. It was now the Gambino Crime Family which was to become the wealthiest and most powerful part of the American Mafia.
Carlo was a smart mobster, as he didn’t want any attention paid to him, so he lived in a modest apartment part of the time and a nice, but not pretentious home on Long Island. He is so low keyed that noted mob historian, Selwyn Raab, in his book Five Families, only gives Carlo a handful of pages out of his nearly 800-page book. Gambino was also a brilliant businessman, expanding his operations throughout the United States. The one thing he would not stand for was dealing in drugs. The attention drug dealing would get from law enforcement was a line that Carlo did not want his men to cross. The punishment for failing to tow the line? Death.
It is estimated that by the 1960’s the Gambino Crime Family was raking in around half-a-billion dollars a year. There were around 500 members of his so-called crews although some have claimed it was upwards of 800. Whatever the number, Carlo Gambino was considered the top of the food chain.
Joe Bonanno tried to take over the Commission but was defeated with Carlo taking the role of boss of bosses but in a modest and unassuming way. Over the following years, Gambino kept his low profile, but the government had their eyes set on him and his operations. Carlo was never caught on a surveillance tape saying anything incriminating using hand gestures to pass along orders.
As he aged, Carlo Gambino needed to set up a succession plan. Two men vied for the Gambino family mantlepiece, his brother-in-law, the white-collar criminal mastermind, Paul Castellano and the blue-collar criminal boss, Aniello Dellacroce. His final decision was to go with Castellano as he had a great deal of mistrust for Dellacroce and one of his underlings, John Gotti.
Carlo Gambino died on October 15, 1976, at the age of 74 of natural causes, something that wasn’t very common with members of the American Mafia. His successor, Paul Castellano was to be gunned down nine years later on December 16, 1985, by orders of John Gotti. Gotti would be the antithesis of Gambino, being flashy and having the world focus on him. He would eventually be brought down in 1992, dying in prison in 2002 of throat cancer.
It’s time to take the tale of the tape so to say. The first 15 points we have to give out is the amount of time these men were evil. With Gambino, we start in Sicily around 1918 and end with his death in 1976 for a total of 58 years. Stalin began his career of villainy in 1905 when he formed a number of radical gangs to rob banks with no thought for human life. It ended with his death in 1953 for a total of 48 years. Carlo gets 15 points Joseph 12.
Next up is the 20 points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. This one is an overwhelming win for the Soviet leader. His actions during World War II and the reshaping of Europe was far more than the drug smuggling, murderous crime boss Carlo Gambino did in his many years of crime. Twenty points for Stalin, 5 for Gambino.
The third point giveaway is 25 for their lasting effect on world history. Carlo Gambino’s crime family pretty much fell from grace after the arrest of John Gotti in 1992, 18 years after his death. While the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its legacy remains and influences many countries around the world. Twenty-five for Stalin, 10 for the Mafia crime boss.
The final points, forty in all, is for how bad or evil they were to their country. It is hard to compare the two as the enormity of Stalin’s legacy of murder, torture, and downright evil doings vastly outdoes the actions of Carlo Gambino’s life of crime. Forty for the Georgian, 25 for the Sicilian.
The final total was pretty much a foregone conclusion with Stalin winning with a score of 97 to Gambino’s 55. Koba moves on to the second round where he will face the winner of the battle between the Cambodian leader, Pol Pot or the murderess female of the Middle Ages, Elizabeth Bathory.
Join me next time when we move back to the leader’s bracket where we have a battle of titans of history, the founder of the Roman Empire, Augustus versus one of Russia’s finest rulers, Catherine the Great.