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Joseph Stalin is renowned as one of the architects of the Soviet Union (USSR) during its infancy, taking the groundwork laid by Vladimir Lenin to create a powerful, industrial nation that entered the world stage with force. So, how did Stalin rise to power and change the future of the Soviet Union?

Joseph Stalin: Biography

Stalin A photograph of Joseph Stalin in 1912 StudySmarterThis photograph of Stalin is from 1912. At this time he was making a name for himself as a loyal Bolshevik and was arrested and exiled several times for his political activism, Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Stalin was born in 1878 and took control of the USSR after Lenin's death in 1924. He was born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili but took the name "Stalin" meaning "man of steel" in the early 20th century. He assumed absolute control of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and ruled until his death in 1953.

Let's have a closer look at Stalin's life to see how he developed the Soviet Union.

Joseph Stalin Timeline

1878Stalin was born an only child to a poor family in Georgia.
1899After being expelled from the seminary for reading Marxist texts, Stalin joined the Social Democrat party. When the party split, he sided with the more radical Bolshevik faction.

A seminary is a training school for priests. Stalin went to the Tbilisi seminary in Georgia to train within the Russian Orthodox Church.

Marxist texts include anything written by Karl Marx, a german philosopher and economist credited with creating a theory for the development of a communist society.

1902-1912Stalin was arrested and exiled several times for political activism.
1912Lenin appointed Stalin to the first Central Committee of the Bolsheviks.
1917October Revolution: The Bolsheviks took control of Russia.
1918-1921The Russian Civil War: The Bolsheviks won and consolidated their power with Lenin in control.
March 1921Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), a backwards step toward capitalism in order to boost Russia's economy. He also issued the Decree Against Factionalism, prohibiting opposition to the Bolshevik Party.
December 1922The Declaration and Treaty on the Formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics formed the Soviet Union. Lenin appointed Stalin as General Secretary of the Central Committee.
1924Lenin died after a third stroke. Stalin supervised the newly announced Lenin Enrolment programme, increasing the size of the Communist Party.
The late 1920sStalin managed to oust his opponents Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin and became the sole dictator of the USSR. In 1927, Stalin discontinued the NEP.
1928 - 1932Stalin issued his first five-year plan, introducing collectivisation and rapid industrialisation to the Soviet Union to boost the country's economy.

Collectivisation is an agricultural policy which combined a number of small peasant farms into larger communes and encouraged community among workers to increase productivity. As the combined farms were placed under State control, the crops were sold to the government very cheaply to provide food for industrial workers in the cities.

1934February: The "Congress of Victors" celebrated the success of the five-year plan. Congress voted for Sergei Kirov to take over from Stalin.December: Kirov was assassinated. Stalin issued the Emergency Decree Against Terrorism which gave the NKVD power to arrest, torture or execute without trial. This began the purge of any of Stalin's critics.

The NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) was Stalin's secret police that operated between 1934-1943. The NKVD was responsible for carrying out the Great Purge 1936-8.

1936Stalin created the new Soviet constitution, known as the 1936 Constitution.
1936 - 1938The Great Purge: Stalin ordered his critics or anyone who had engaged in questionable political activity to be arrested, tortured and executed.
1939-1945Second World War: The USSR had a non-aggression pact with Germany but joined the Allies after Hitler and the Nazis invaded in 1941.
Post-WWIIThe Cold War began and US-Soviet relations deteriorated.
1953Stalin died after a stroke. He was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev.

Stalin's Rise to Power

In the fallout of Lenin's death in 1924, there was a struggle for power in the USSR. Stalin outmanoeuvred the other potential leadership candidates to assert himself at the top of the Soviet Union.

Lenin's Testament

Stalin A photograph of Lenin and Stalin StudySmarterLenin and Stalin, Wikimedia Commons

Lenin dictated his Testament from late 1922 into early 1923. In this, he concluded that Stalin should be removed from his role as General Secretary.

He also said that Leon Trotsky was too arrogant as head of the Red Army and that the clash between the two could lead to a splitting of the Bolshevik party.

The Red Army was the Bolshevik military force that was developed under Trotsky. Originally, the Bolshevik paramilitary force was known as the Red Guard, but after the October Revolution of 1917, the Red Guard became the Soviet government's army and was renamed the Red Army. It fought for the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War and became Russia's primary military force.

Lenin's testament also asked the party to pardon Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev's lack of support for the October Revolution. He wrote that in the same way that Trotsky's Menshevik past must not affect his leadership bid, Zinoviev and Kamenev's past decisions must also be ignored. He also mentioned that although Nikolai Bukharin was a party favourite, he did not have "fully Marxist" ideologies.

Lenin was deliberately vague in who he wanted to be appointed after his death as he preferred collective leadership rather than an individual head of state.

Lenin was particularly wary of Stalin because of his treatment of Georgia. In 1922, Lenin tasked Stalin with persuading Georgia to rejoin the Soviet Union after it had declared independence. Rather than negotiating, Stalin sent in the Red Army and the Cheka to force Georgia to rejoin. Stalin's brash actions and his power as General Secretary led Lenin not to trust him.

Stalin's Powers as General Secretary

Stalin Photograph of Stalin in 1937 StudySmarterStalin in 1937, Wikimedia Commons

The position of General Secretary was considered a boring, administrative role, but Stalin used it to his advantage. Let's look at how Stalin gained influence throughout the whole party with his position.

Stalin as General Secretary
  • The General Secretary appointed the Regional Secretaries, who elected Party Congress, who elected the Central Committee, who elected the Politburo. This gave Stalin a lot of power over the makeup of the government.
  • Stalin appointed inexperienced people as regional secretaries who he could manipulate by offering party benefits such as housing, wealth and influence.
  • Stalin had vacancies to fill as he pleased as many regional secretaries had been imprisoned or executed during the Civil War.

  • By ensuring the regional secretaries were loyal to him, this support trickled upwards through the hierarchy of the Soviet government.
  • Stalin's supporters informed him of Lenin's Political Testament before it had been read to the government. In response, he formed the triumvirate - a group of 3 leaders - with Zinoviev and Kamenev, who regarded Trotsky as a greater threat than Stalin.
  • As General Secretary, Stalin was able to postpone the 1924 Lenin Enrolment programme, which would double the size of the Bolshevik party from 500,000 to one million by 1926. This postponement allowed Stalin to enrol those who supported him, increasing his influence.

Stalin's Tactics

So how exactly did Stalin deal with his opponents? The usual technique was to bring up past actions and use it against them.


Supporting factors for leadershipStalin's tactics


  • Trotsky helped to plot the successful October Revolution.
  • He also created and built up the Red Army, so was credited for the Bolshevik victory in the Civil War.
  • His close connection with Lenin gave him influence in the Bolshevik party.
  • Stalin used Trotsky's past as a Menshevik, his disagreements with Lenin over political theory, and the power he commanded over the military to accuse him of factionalism and the creation of Trotskyism. Trotsky then resigned as Commissar for War in 1925.
  • Trotsky wanted a worldwide communist revolution but Stalin championed "Socialism in One Country" and claimed Trotsky was disloyal to Russia.
  • Stalin helped to arrange Lenin's funeral and sent Trotsky the wrong date so he missed it. This created questions about Trotsky's loyalty.

Kamenev and Zinoviev

  • They discredited Trotsky's achievements with the Red Army, and nicknamed him the "Red Napoleon", as Napoleon had used the French Revolution to become Emperor.
  • Kamenev held the powerful position of head of the Moscow party whilst Zinoviev was the Chairman of the Leningrad party.
  • Zinoviev gained support by attacking Stalin's continuation of the NEP - the unpopular semi-capitalist economic program.
  • Kamenev, Zinoviev and Trotsky formed the United Opposition in 1926 to oppose Stalin, but Stalin used his influence so that Kamenev lost his position in the Moscow Party. All three were later accused of factionalism and were removed from their positions in October 1926.
  • Stalin appropriated Zinoviev's policies of rapid industrialisation to replace the NEP, gaining the support he had.


  • Bukharin supported the NEP, so formed an influential alliance with Stalin to oppose Kamenev and Zinoviev's attack on the policy.
  • Bukharin also held party influence because of his position in the Politburo which he held from 1924.
  • Stalin only supported Bukharin temporarily with the NEP to oppose the United Opposition but turned on him to introduce rapid industrialisation and collectivisation.
  • Bukharin's alliance with Mikhail Tomsky and Aleksei Rykov, the Right Deviation, attempted to support the NEP in 1928. Stalin accused them of factionalism and removed all three from their positions of power.

Stalin commonly cited Lenin's 1921 Decree Against Factionalism to accuse his opponents of treason and remove them from power. By the end of the 1920s, Stalin had removed his rivals for the head of the Soviet government, but how did he act as a leader?


Existence of different groups within a larger group, often with conflicting ideas

Stalin as a Leader

Stalin had removed his opponents by the end of the 1920s and had adopted policies that suited his politics. Stalin's political and economic policies became known as Stalinism and characterised his reign of fear and intimidation.

Socialism in One Country

Stalin believed in socialism in one country - strengthening socialism in the USSR rather than exporting it abroad. This served to justify Stalin's other policies as he was focused on building the USSR's economy through socialism and strengthening the country as a whole.

Five-Year Plans

Stalin's five-year plans created production goals for peasants and industrial workers to improve the economy. The plans were driven by two key policies:

  • Collectivisation: Stalin grouped farms into state-owned collectives, and issued resource goals to provide for the whole country.
  • Rapid industrialisation: Factories in cities were also given production goals to improve the economy and trade.

In 1931, Stalin famously said:

We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make up this gap in ten years. Either we do it or they will crush us.

The plans intended to accelerate the Soviet Union to become an industrial power, at the expense of the workers who suffered long hours and low pay to reach quotas.

Cult of Personality

Stalin introduced a cult of personality based on himself. Using propaganda, his image was plastered across the USSR and he made himself into a mythical, god-like persona as an all-knowing and all-powerful leader. This helped to rally his support amongst the population, but also increased the punishment of those who opposed him.

Cult of personality

The creation of an idealised image of a leader

The Great Purge

Using his cult of personality alongside the nationalism of Socialism in One Country, Stalin persecuted ethnic nationals and minorities such as Jews in purges. The Great Purge (1936-8) was directed at "cleansing" the Bolshevik party and eliminating Stalin's political opponents at all party levels.

Stalin and International Relations

Besides his domestic issues within the USSR, Stalin had to engage the Soviet Union in the global arena. Two key international oppositions to his rule were Nazi Germany and the US, as shown with the Second World War and the Cold War.

Stalin and Hitler

Stalin Newspaper cartoon of Hitler and Stalin StudySmarterThis famous cartoon was published in the Washington Star in 1939 following the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, Wikimedia Commons

Stalin wanted to maintain the territories that the USSR held and when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the aggressive Nazi expansion policies threatened the USSR.

The German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact 1939

Initially, Stalin attempted to sign an anti-Nazi pact with Britain and France in mid-August 1939 but a deal was not made. Stalin then signed the nonaggression pact with Hitler later that month in an attempt to safeguard Soviet territories from potential Nazi invasion.

With Stalin and Hitler as allies, Germany invaded Western Poland and Stalin occupied parts of Eastern Europe to create a Soviet buffer zone.

Operation Barbarossa

Despite the pact, Hitler had planned his notorious Operation Barbarossa to invade the USSR to provide "living space" for Germans.

Hitler invaded the USSR in three places: Leningrad (North), Ukraine (South) and Moscow (Central West) in 1941. Stalin was caught by surprise but eventually coordinated the Red Army to counterattack and prevent the operation from succeeding.

As a result of Hitler's invasion, Stalin signed the Anglo-Soviet Alliance, switching from the Axis to the Allied powers. Stalin demonstrated himself as a competent leader with the Battle of Stalingrad in Winter 1942 and the Battle of Kursk in Summer 1943, which helped to turn the tide of WWII to the Allies' favour.

Stalin and the Cold War

By the end of WWII, Stalin had used the Red Army to liberate much of Eastern Europe from Nazi occupation. However, he refused to leave these countries, causing tension with the Western powers. In particular, the United States was threatened by Stalin's actions and began issuing new foreign policy to intervene if other countries' freedom was threatened.

Stalin claimed to be creating a buffer zone against future German invasion, but the countries also acted as Soviet spheres of influence. The ideological battle between the US' capitalism and USSR's communism created the environment for the Cold War.

Stalin's five-year plans and his cult of personality formed the ideal propaganda throughout the USSR and globally during the Cold War.

Under Stalin's reign, the USSR was able to develop into a superpower to rival the US, engaging in the arms and space race with the US. In the USSR, Stalin's close control of propaganda and intimidation tactics helped the country's domestic growth as he competed with the US.

Stalin's Death

In 1953, Stalin suffered a stroke and died. He was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev who attempted to reverse some of Stalin's policies of terror through a process known as destalinisation. The policy renounced Stalin's cult of personality, provided cultural freedoms, and pursued "peaceful coexistence" with the West. Khrushchev also used the policy to secure his own position as head of state and expel Stalin's supporters from the Soviet party.

Stalin - Key takeaways

  • Stalin was a strong supporter of Lenin and used his position as General Secretary to ensure he succeeded him after Lenin's death in 1924.
  • Lenin's Testament condemned his potential successors, including Stalin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin. These became Stalin's rivals which he took down by forming alliances against each of them.
  • Once he had defeated his rivals, Stalin became the sole dictator of the USSR. He introduced policies of collectivisation and rapid industrialisation to improve Russia's economy. He also supported a principle of "Socialism in One Country", which supported Russia's development over encouraging a worldwide communist revolution.
  • WWII served as a test of Russia's strength since Stalin took power as he was faced with international prospects of invasion from Germany. He initially signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939 but later switched sides to the Allies in 1941 after Hitler invaded.
  • Stalin's defence of the USSR demonstrated his success in creating a powerful country. Subsequently, he entered into a Cold War with the US as the two rival superpowers competed.
  • Stalin died in 1953 and was succeeded by Khrushchev who attempted to reverse some of Stalin's most brutal policies with a process of destalinisation.

Frequently Asked Questions about Stalin

Stalin died of a stroke in 1953.

Stalin was appointed General Secretary by Lenin in 1922. When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin gradually removed his rivals and became the sole dictator of the USSR in the late 1920s.

Stalin is best known for his cunning rise to power after Lenin's death, his introduction of policies such as collectivisation and rapid industrialisation, and his brutal leadership of the Great Purge in 1936-1938.

1. Stalin introduced the 5-year plans in the USSR in 1928 which aimed to revive the Russian economy through collectivisation and rapid industrialisation.

2. Stalin originally created an alliance with Hitler in 1939, but switched to the Allies during WWII after Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941.

3. Stalin died in 1953 and was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev who attempted to reverse some of Stalin's brutal policies through a process of destalinisation.

Stalin originally joined an alliance with Hitler in 1939 with the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression pact. He subsequently invaded Eastern Poland, Lativa, Estonia, Lithuania and parts of Romania. When Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941, Stalin signed the Anglo-Soviet alliance and joined the Allies against Hitler for the remainder of the Second World War.

Final Stalin Quiz


When did Stalin join the Bolshevik Party?

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When did Lenin appoint Stalin as General Secretary?

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Who were Stalin's rivals for leadership of the USSR after Lenin's death?

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What method of USSR control did Lenin favour?

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Collective Leadership

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As General Secretary, which part of the Russian government was Stalin in charge of appointing?

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Regional Secretaries

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Who was in the first Triumvirate formed after Lenin's death?

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Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev

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What position did Trotsky hold between 1917 and 1925?

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Commissar for War

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What nickname did Zinoviev and Kamenev give Trotsky due to his powerful position as Commissar of War?

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Red Napoleon

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Which policies did Stalin introduce to replace the discontinuation of the NEP?

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When did Adolf Hitler come to power in Germany?

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When did Stalin and Hitler sign the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact?

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August 1939

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What was the name of Hitler's plan to invade the USSR?

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Operation Barbarossa

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When did Hitler invade the USSR?

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June 1941

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When did Stalin sign the Anglo-Soviet pact, switching sides to the Allies during WWII?

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Who succeeded Stalin after his death in 1953?

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Nikita Khrushchev

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