The office grew out of less powerful secretarial positions within the party: Technical Secretary (1917–1918), Chairman of the Secretariat (1918–1919), and Responsible Secretary (1919–1922) (when Lenin was leader of the party of Bolsheviks).
In its first two incarnations the office performed mostly secretarial work. The post of Responsible Secretary was then established in 1919 to perform administrative work. In 1922, the office of General Secretary followed as a purely administrative and disciplinary position, whose role was to do no more than determine party membership composition. Stalin, its first incumbent, used the principles of democratic centralism to transform his office into that of party leader, and later leader of the Soviet Union.
In 1934, the 17th Party Congress refrained from formally re-electing Stalin as General Secretary. However, Stalin was re-elected into all other positions and remained leader of the party without diminishment.
In the 1950s, Stalin increasingly withdrew from Secretariat business, leaving the supervision of the body to Georgy Malenkov, possibly to test him as a potential successor. In October 1952, at the 19th Party Congress, Stalin restructured the party's leadership. His request, voiced through Malenkov, to be relieved of his duties in the party secretariat due to his age, was rejected by the party congress, as delegates were unsure about Stalin's intentions. In the end, the congress formally abolished Stalin's office of General Secretary, though Stalin remained one of the party secretaries and maintained ultimate control of the Party. When Stalin died on 5 March 1953, Malenkov was the most important member of the Secretariat, which also included Nikita Khrushchev, among others. Under a short-lived troika of Malenkov, Beria, and Molotov, Malenkov became Chairman of the Council of Ministers but was forced to resign from the Secretariat nine days later on 14 March, leaving Khrushchev in effective control of the body. Khrushchev was elected to the new office of First Secretary at the Central Committee plenum on 14 September of the same year. Khrushchev removed his rivals from power in both 1955 and (especially) 1957 and reinforced the supremacy of the First Secretary.
As Technical Secretary, Stasova and her staff of four women were responsible for maintaining correspondence with provincial party cells, assigning work, keeping financial records, distributing Party funds, formulating party structure policy and appointing new personnel.
The office of Responsible Secretary functioned like a secretary, a somewhat menial position given that Krestinsky was also a member of the Party's Politburo, Orgburo and Secretariat. Nevertheless, Krestinsky never tried to create an independent power base as Joseph Stalin later did during his time as General Secretary.
Was elected Responsible Secretary at the 10th Party Congress held in March 1921. The Congress decided that the office of Responsible Secretary should have a presence at Politburo plenums. As a result, Molotov became a candidate member of the Politburo.
Stalin used the office of General Secretary to create a strong power base for himself. At the 17th Party Congress in 1934, Stalin was not formally re-elected as General Secretary and the office was rarely mentioned after that but Stalin retained his positions and all of his power. The office was formally abolished at the 19th Party Congress on 16 October 1952, but Stalin retained ultimate power. At 30 years 7 months, Stalin was by far the longest-serving General Secretary, serving for almost half of the USSR's entire existence.
Khrushchev reestablished the office on 14 September 1953 under the name First Secretary. In 1957 he was nearly removed from office by the Anti-Party Group. Georgy Malenkov, a leading member of the Anti-Party Group, worried that the powers of the First Secretary were virtually unlimited. Khrushchev was removed as leader on 14 October 1964, and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.
Brezhnev's powers and functions as the General Secretary were limited by the collective leadership. By the 1970s Brezhnev's influence exceeded that of Kosygin as he was able to retain this support by avoiding any radical reforms.
He emerged as Brezhnev's most likely successor as the chairman of the committee in charge of managing Brezhnev's funeral. Andropov ruled the country in the same way Brezhnev had before he died.
He was elected Deputy General Secretary at the 28th Party Congress. Ivashko became acting General Secretary following Gorbachev's resignation, but by then the Party was politically impotent and on 29 August 1991, it was banned.