Joseph Stalin came from some pretty humble beginnings. Born in a small village in south central Georgia (the country, not the state) in the late-19th century, Stalin was a ragamuffin from the very beginning. He was the first member of his family to receive any sort of scholarly education. This occurred in part because his mother sent him away to a variety of religious schools to protect him from his abusive, alcoholic father.
Stalin, however, wasn't much for sitting around the classroom and absorbing a religiously motivated education. He often misbehaved, disrespected his teachers, and apparently delighted in stating his lack of belief in any higher power.
At the age of twenty-one, he bid school adieu for good to fully invest himself in Marxist ideology and the burgeoning Russian Social-Democratic Labour party, which stood in opposition to the imperialism of the Russian Tsar.
From the get go, his enthusiasm for social reform was as intense as his dedication, which often landed him in prison—and prison in Russia meant being sent to a camp way the heck in the middle of nowhere. Arrested four times, Stalin escaped his exile each time to take up his revolutionary activities anew.
The first decade and half of the 20th century was a rough time for Russia, which underwent some serious political turmoil, and when Stalin wasn't a part of that turmoil, he was in support of it. It was with these activities that he began to make a name for himself as a strong public figure. When he wasn't in jail, he was advancing the common will of the people as a politician and a diplomat.
After the October Revolution of 1917, when Vladimir Lenin led the Bolsheviks in a coup that overthrew the Russian Tsar, Stalin took on a increasingly important role in the development of a new, socialist Russian.
From 1917 to 1922, while the Russian Civil war raged as a result of disputes between the Bolsheviks and the loyal Imperialists, Stalin worked alongside Lenin. Eventually, Lenin appointed him to a high-ranking position with his new government. This meant that, in 1922, with the official formation of the United Soviet Socialist Republics (that would be the U.S.S.R.), Stalin was within reaching distance of the highest position of political leadership.
When Lenin died in 1924, there was a crazy skirmish among high-level government officials for the vacancy of power left behind, and Stalin, the so-called Man of Steel, was the one to grasp it. As the new leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin implemented major economic and industrial reforms with the goal of transforming the country into a massive, socialist machine.
His rule became increasingly oppressive. Religion was banned, art and culture were highly monitored and controlled, and political dissidents of the lowest degree to the highest treason were imprisoned and/or killed in "purges." This period of Stalinist rule became known as The Great Terror.
Yeah; anything called "The Great Terror" is pretty horrific.
Initially, Stalin and Hitler had signed a nonaggression pact that prevented either nation from invading the other at the beginning of WWII. However, Hitler wasn't exactly the most upstanding guy when it came to promises (and, you know, basic decency), so when the German military attempted to capture Moscow and then Stalingrad, Stalin was none too happy about it.
Although the U.S.S.R. thwarted the Nazi invasion, it was at an enormous cost of nearly nine million Soviet military deaths, at least. (Source) Furthermore, their victory would not have been possible without the aid of military materials provided by the British and the Americans through Lend-Lease.
When the Soviets finally made headway in repelling the Germans and breaking into Nazi territory, they did so with a vengeance that was unparalleled. The Battle of Berlin and its chaotic and violent aftermath are a testament to their ferocity.
After the Allied victory in Europe, Stalin was held in great acclaim worldwide and especially at home, but while post-war feelings were warm in the U.S.S.R., foreign relations were beginning to cool. As the 1950s approached, world politics changed drastically yet again when the Cold War between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union began to take hold.
However, the majority of the Cold War would be another Soviet leader's problem because by 1950, Stalin was gettin' old. After decades of political conflict, he wasn't doing so hot either when it came to his health.
On the fifth of March, 1953, Stalin died of a cerebral hemorrhage, though many conspiracies exist that also suggest foul play. (If you're in need of some good old-fashioned internet sleuthing, we suggest going down the rabbit hole of these theories. You can start here.)