Premier Josef Stalin, who ruled Russia since 1924, saw the Soviet empire spread eastward through China and westward through half of Europe.
He welded his powers into that of a dictator, purging political enemies ruthlessly and surrounding himself with men who completely mirrored his own economic theories.
But Stalin proved himself a military leader as well. He became Soviet premier in May 1941 just one month before Hitler invaded Russia in World War II. When the Nazis reached the suburbs of Moscow in November after parading through western Russia with ease, Stalin refused to leave the Kremlin and took personal command of the Russian armies.
He appeared at the front and took personal charge of his capital's defense. The German attack faltered and broke; the Nazi high command ordered a retreat to a winter line far west of Moscow.
Patterning his campaign on the czarist strategy that had routed Napoleon more than a century before. Stalin traded space for time with the German invaders, with the Russian winter as his greatest ally.
He used an elastic defensive system against the German armored warfare. When the Germans threw their massed panzer divisions against a narrow sector of the front, Stalin ordered his men to open ranks, let the tank spearheads through, and then close the breach before the supporting infantry could follow.
After the Moscow defeat, the Nazis switched southward to the Caucasus, and again Stalin blocked them. Stalingrad, where he had led the revolutionary forces against the czar in 1918, again was the pivotal battlefield. Stalin assumed direct command and ordered the city held at all costs.
The Red Army held. The Germans were rolled back from the Caucasus and began the terrible retreat that was to end only in the blackened ruins of Hitler's Berlin Chancellery.
Stalin was short, sturdy and dark. His black mustache and thick hair showed only a faint sprinkling of gray even in his middle 60's under the strain of war.
Stalin was born Josef Vissarionovich Djhugashvilli, Dec. 21, 1870, in a small peasant town in the Caucasus. He entered a seminary to study for the priesthood in 1894 and was expelled in 1899.
Then he began a full-time revolutionary career and was in constant trouble with the czarist police.
It was in a Siberian prison camp where he earned the name of Stalin, which means man of steel. The prisoners, Stalin among them, were ordered to run a gantlet, while their soldier guards beat them with rifle butts. Stalin was said to have walked slowly along the line, head erect, reading aloud from one of the works of Karl Marx.
When Stalin was released from prison in 1917 he joined forces with Nicolai Lenin and Leon Trotsky to overthrow the short-lived Kerensky government that had succeeded Czar Nicholas.
From then on Stalin's rise was rapid.
Lenin made him his No.1 trouble-shooter in the battle against the White Russians and the Poles, and he soon became heir apparent to the "Father of the Revolution."
His personal rivalry with Trotsky flared into open warfare after the death of Lenin in 1924.
Trotsky charged that Stalin was betraying the Marxian revolution. Stalin believed the Communist Party should establish itself firmly in Russia first and postpone world revolution.
Trotsky, on the other hand, wanted world revolution regardless of the internal situation and he predicted that Stalin's program of forced industrialization would wreck the movement.
In 1927, Stalin exiled his rival to Siberia, and two years later Trotsky left Russia forever. He was slain in August 1940 at his home in Mexico City.
With Trotsky gone, Stalin began a series of five-year plans that were to turn the Soviet Union into an industrial nation.
Well aware of the war that was gathering over Europe, he rearmed the Red Army to an extent that no one outside the highest Soviet circles realized.
Stalin was a fanatic, but his fanaticism was controlled by keen and shrewd judgment of issues and men. He had no patience with those who believed the privileged classes might be shorn of their power by gradual political evolution.
He was ruthless, firm and determined, a believer in direct and violent action as the only means of offense against entrenched power.