Josef Stalin was born Josef Dugashvili in 1879 in Gori, Georgia.
He was a minor member of the Bolshevikii (the pro-violence majority of the Communist Party.) This group carried a vote at a party meeting in London in 1906, resolving to overthrow the Tsarist government of Russia by violent means. The losing group (the Menshevikii) had advocated non-violent means of achieving this outcome. The Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, adopted the pseudonym Lenin, by which he was always subsequently known.
In 1916, German sympathisers smuggled Lenin into Russia, where he organised the anti-Tsarist elements. Dugashvili - under his pseudonym of Stalin - was a courier and record-keeper for Lenin during this period. As the first editor of the Party newspaper Pravda (Truth), he gradually increased his influence whilst keeping a relatively low profile. On Lenin's death, he became Secretary-General of the Party, whereupon he ordered the expulsion and elimination of the Menshevikii. Leon Trotsky, the last surviving Menshevik, was assassinated in Mexico on Stalin's orders.
From 1927, Stalin presided over a massive industrialisation of the Soviet Union. This was a socially, economically and politically disruptive process. It involved collectivisation of the USSR's agricultural resources under central control from Moscow; dispossession of hundreds of thousands of kulaks (smallholding farmers); and ultimate failure, as quotas were never met and peasants starved on their state-owned farms.
In 1938, Stalin - nervous about the growing power of Hitler's Germany - signed a non-aggression pact with the Nazis. This freed the Nazi war machine to campaign in the West, overrunning France, Belgium and the Netherlands by mid-1940. Stalin and Hitler had already divided Poland between them in 1939 - a campaign which led to Britain declaring war on Nazi Germany.
By 1941, Hitler had dropped all pretence of co-existence with the Soviet Union, and invaded in June that year. The Red Army, weakened by continual purges of senior officers, suffered defeat after defeat as the Nazis advanced. Only after a titanic battle at Stalingrad, in which Field Marshal Paulus' Sixth Army was encircled and defeated, did the tide start to turn.
A major contributor to the Germans' defeat was the engineering sophistication of their equipment, which led to vehicle engines refusing to start because they had frozen solid in the brutal Russian winter. "General Winter" was a major part of the Soviet arsenal: Red Army equipment, like their soldiers, was simple and robust, and designed to survive a wide range of temperatures.
Stalin met the British and American leaders Churchill, Roosevelt and (after Roosevelt's death) Truman, at Teheran in 1943 and at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945. On all three occasions, he did not endear himself to his so-callied allies. His peasant upbringing meant that his people skills were rudimentary. The political message was equally blunt: he demanded a "second front" to relieve the weight on his forces. The British and Americans had already conquered North Africa and Sicily, and were heavily engaged in Italy. Nevertheless, on 6th June 1944, they invaded France. The Red Army advanced from the East, and the Nazis were squeezed between two overwhelming forces.
With the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945, the Western Allies withdrew to agreed boundaries across Europe. The Soviet forces did no such thing, and simply advanced into the vacuum left by the British and Americans. By 1949, Churchill's chilling speech to the US Congress told the world of the "Iron Curtain" which had descended across Europe. Stalin's hegemony over Eastern Europe was absolute, and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) shortly after was answered by the Warsaw Pact. The Cold War was under way.
Increasingly paranoid, Stalin retreated to his dacha, or country house, outside Moscow, from which he rarely emerged. Exceptions to this rule were the annual October Revolution commemorations in Red Square. Apparatchiks in the party took to conducting business on two levels - one for the benefit of the Party, and one in which people spoke their minds and set policy unofficially. One such apparatchik was Nikita Khruschev. When Stalin died in his dacha in 1953, Khruschev took over as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. By the standards of the day, he was a moderate and a reformer. There was much to reform after Stalin's stewardship.