When Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, his charismatic henchman Leon Trotsky seemed to be his most obvious successor. Instead it was Joseph Stalin, a man once described by Trotsky as a “dull grey blur” and a “nonentity” who had, by 1929, vanquished his political rivals and seized power for himself.
The self-proclaimed man of steel would rule over the Soviet Union until his death in 1953. Over the course of a little more than two decades he transformed the Soviet Union from a technologically backwards agricultural society into a nuclear-armed superpower.
Remarkable as this feat was, it was achieved through suffering on a colossal scale. Stalin’s Soviet Union was billed as a workers’ paradise, instead it was a terrifying police state presided over by one of history’s most brutal dictators.