When Fidel Castro—the Cuban leader who has died at 90—first took that position in 1959, he drove himself 650 miles around his country, delivering speeches to the people he would rule. As crowds lined the route of his victory tour, LIFE was on the scene, capturing the excitement of a nation that hoped it had found a way to a better future, and the excitement of the man who promised to bring them there. LIFE noted somewhat breathlessly in the caption to the image that appears in the second slide above that Castro wore two wristwatches so he would not have to turn over his arm to see what time it was. He seemed, the magazine reported, unique in that he had taken power but seemed to want so little for himself.
"Down from the eastern hills where he had forged his big victory, Fidel Castro last week marched in tumultuous triumph through the towns and villages of post-Batista Cuba," LIFE reported. "He came not as a dutifully honored conqueror but as a man ecstatically acclaimed by the people he had liberated."
Quickly, however, the magazine's tone of coverage changed, as trials began for those who had opposed Castro's revolution. The energy mustered by Castro, it was clear, was more complicated than the adulation might have made it seem.
By 1963, the same year that LIFE photographers watched Castro on the trip to the USSR seen in the images above, the magazine was also covering his homeland as, in the words of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, an "island of pleasure gone adrift." It was in the editor's note in a March 1963 issue that Cartier-Bresson summed up his own view of the relationship between Castro and Cuba: to photograph the nation without photographing its leader was like painting a portrait with no head. For better or for worse, Castro—as is already clear in the early photographs here—was, for decades, the personality behind the politics.