MOSCOW, March 5 (RIA Novosti) - Exactly 55 years ago Joseph Stalin, the dictator who dragged the Soviet Union to superpower status, passed away in mysterious circumstances at his dacha just outside Moscow.
While the details of his death remain a focus of conspiracy theories and rumors, there is no doubt that Stalin, along with Hitler and Mao Zedong, was one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century. Russia is still in many respects divided over the legacy of his 30-year reign.
Born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in the town of Gori in Georgia on December 21, 1879, the future Soviet leader grew up in a poor family.
His mother was deeply religious, and entered Stalin in a local church school in 1888. From there the young Stalin earned a scholarship to the Tiflis Theological Seminary. It was while undertaking studies for the priesthood that he joined a secret organization aimed at securing Georgia's independence from Russia. More significantly, it was also where he would first be introduced to the ideas of Karl Marx.
Expelled from the seminary in 1899 for preaching Marxism to his fellow students, Stalin began work as a journalist for a socialist Georgian newspaper. In 1902, he was exiled to Siberia for his role in organizing a strike at a factory. Upon his release he joined the fledgling Bolshevik Party and met Lenin for the first time in 1905, but was again exiled to Siberia, this time for life, in 1913.
Following the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, the Provisional Government granted an amnesty to political prisoners, and Stalin returned to St Petersburg where he took up the position of editor at Pravda.
His subsequent support for Lenin's opposition to the Provisional Government won him the title of Commissar of Nationalities after the Bolsheviks had seized power in October 1917.
"You know, to pass so quickly from an underground existence to power makes one dizzy," Lenin reportedly joked.
However, Stalin showed no signs that he would struggle to adapt to a position of authority, moving quickly to establish himself in the Bolshevik hierarchy and becoming General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1922.
Despite Stalin's new position as "Lenin's mouthpiece," the ailing father of the Bolshevik Revolution disapproved of the Georgian, writing shortly before his death that he would prefer to see someone, "more tolerant, more loyal, more polite, more considerate of his comrades" succeed him.
It was not to be, however. In 1945, following Lenin's death and a brief power struggle with Leon Trotsky and his supporters, Stalin took control of the Soviet Union.
The 1930s saw the Soviet Union enter a period of political repression and purges known as the 'Great Terror.' The Communist Party, the Red Army and the secret police themselves were purged of 'disloyal' and counter-revolutionary members, and many executed following short interrogations. Paranoia reigned supreme, not least in the Kremlin itself.
"Death is the solution to all problems. No man - no problem," said Stalin at the height of the purges.
The outbreak of WWII saw Stalin reportedly taken by surprise and enter a period of depression and shock, and little was heard of the dictator for the first days of the war. However, he soon recovered and inspired the Soviets to push the Nazis out of the U.S.S.R.
"Not a step back," was Stalin's slogan, and it was often literally enforced, with Soviet troops in some cases ordered to shoot to kill retreating soldiers. After the war, many Red Army men who had fallen into the hands of the enemy were sent to Gulags, the system of prison camps set up in the harsher areas of the Soviet Union.
Stalin consolidated his power after the conclusion of 'The Great Patriotic War' and his cult of personality began to grow.
In 1953, as he was reportedly contemplating a purge of Jews from the Soviet Union, he began to suffer from high blood pressure. On March 5 of that year he passed away at his dacha.
It has been suggested that Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's fellow Georgian and head of the secret police, killed Stalin by - at the very least - denying him medical aid after a stroke. In 1993 in his memoirs, Stalin's protege Vyacheslav Molotov claimed that Beria had told him, "I did him in! I saved all of you!"
Beria, a well-known sadist and rapist whose favorite pastime was to cruise the streets of Moscow looking for girls to bring back to his house to assault, had designs on seizing the reins of the fledgling nuclear state following Stalin's death. Unfortunately for Beria, although fortunately for the rest of the human race, Nikita Khrushchev had him executed in December 1953.
Stalin's legacy lives on today. Despite the purges and the famine in Ukraine, Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Russian Communist Party has compared Stalin to "the most grandiose figures of the Renaissance."
A recent poll by the All-Russian Public Opinion Center showed that more than half of all respondents believed Stalin's role in Russian history to be positive. 20% called him "wise and humane." Indeed a Russian schoolbook published in 2007 characterized Stalin's reign as "effective."
A complex character whose favorite piece of music was reportedly a record featuring dogs howling along to an orchestra and who frightened one of the last reporters to interview him by drawing dozens of ferocious wolves on a scrap of paper, Stalin's philosophy can perhaps be best summed up by a quote from the man himself: "I trust no one, not even myself."