To what extent was Stalin a totalitarian leader?
Modern historians and social scientists usually eschew the term "totalitarian," claiming that it tends to obscure the agency of the people allegedly totalitarian dictators mean to rule, and it simply makes a unsustainable claim: no leader can have total control over a people. With this in mind, however, there can be little doubt that Stalin behaved as if he aspired to total control, or that he meets many of the criteria that observers like Hannah Arendt and others have ascribed to "totalitarianism."
Stalin maintained power by creating a constant sense of crisis, both internal and external. During collectivization, for instance, it was argued that the Soviet Union could only sustain the socialist experiment through rapid industrialization. Those who stood in the way, particularly land-owning peasants, were portrayed as enemies of the state, and were liquidated. Stalin, of course, also created a cult of personality around himself, one which made extensive use of propaganda. His face was everywhere, and Soviet citizens were encouraged to view him as their savior, as well as someone to be feared. Another way in which Stalin aspired to total control over the lives of the Soviet people was through the use of secret police and terror. His purges, which utilized the secret police organization the NKVD, killed off or imprisoned thousands of potential rivals as well as ideological opponents of Stalin.
In each of these ways, and many others, Stalin attempted to strengthen his grip on the Soviet people.