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Joseph Stalin


Russia and the Soviet Union 1917–1941


Cliff Cranfield

Joseph Stalin in a pensive mood



From this tutorial you will learn about the following key features and issues of history of Russia and the Soviet Union 1917–1941:


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The Stalin cult: the cult of personality

So, who was this Joseph Stalin who managed to retain power, as well as love and respect, and the trust of the majority of the Russian people? This is very important, as he never really relied on force alone, and was generally very popular and was followed with great dedication and love.

The Soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovich denies that Stalin had any charisma. In his words, Stalin was "an ordinary, shabby little man: short, fat, with reddish hair. His face was covered with pock marks and his right hand was noticeably thinner than his left. He kept hiding his right hand. He didn't look anything like his numerous portraits."

Despite his personal appearance, Stalin managed to achieve the status of a demi-god, and this had occurred by 1938. Stalin was promoted as the leading communist and, as a result, many people came to believe that he and he alone could save the Soviet Union from invasion and imminent collapse. The public figure was at once stern and friendly and reassuring; a father figure who embodied all achievements in his person. Not unnaturally, this tended to paralyse any political activity at all. The virtue of the cult, so far as Stalin was concerned, was that the Party was unable to control his actions in any way; everything now became justified. Additionally, the gap between the leader and his people widened. In essence, Stalin became the priest and his people became his followers. Other advantages accrued from this position: while it became difficult to believe in the crimes of the Old Bolsheviks as outlined in the various show trials, it was even more difficult to believe that Stalin was conducting a monstrous campaign to destroy his previous friends and colleagues.

Despite the dismissive comments of Shostakovich mentioned above, others responded to Stalin's presence in a rather different manner, most especially the young who found meeting the great man an awe-inspiring occurrence. When the young daughter of one of Stalin's officials met him for the first time, she responded:

I saw him only once. Around 1936, Papa gave me a guest ticket to a Congress of Soviets. I heard him and saw him... His Georgian accent was so strong that for the first 15 minutes it was hard for me to understand him, which I hadn't expected, because I had read his speeches in the newspapers. It was also surprising how he held his audience in the palm of his hand. He spoke slowly, with pauses, as a very calm person... I have never heard a public speaker so unhurried, so confident that not only every word of his was being listened to but also that he could make whatever pauses he liked and they would not seem empty. Everything was in his hands. and that produced a kind of blissful ecstasy on top of the excitement I already felt. You know, he was like a stage director, pausing at places where there should be laughter, and we would laugh... I clapped; everyone clapped. I was ecstatic, in a state of exaltation. And then there was the thrill of being in the presence of the tremendous power that could be felt all around.

To people such as Tatyana and others much older, the deaths of acquaintances could be seen in this way as occasional examples of injustice. To those who did not believe in the godlike status of Stalin, what could they do? If they did manage to act and to kill Stalin, they feared the probable massive social consequences.

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Russians who did have doubts concerning what was happening had fairly limited choices. Obviously they could take a stand and refuse to carry out instructions, and no doubt a number of Russians did refuse, at great personal risk to their lives. It was easier to keep silent, and much, much safer. Such people could always rationalise that either Stalin who could make no mistakes, did not personally know of specific injustices, or, since Stalin could make no mistakes, then obviously he must have known more than the individual Russian.

More to the point, Stalin's power was not merely individual, and it was not just propaganda; millions were involved in carrying out the orders of the state. This meant not only the NKVD, but the entire Party apparatus as well as the government institutions. Many thousands of party officials were involved in special boards or troiki, which were three-man panels which condemned people to the camps or to death in the repressive campaigns of the 1930s. So we are really talking about tens of thousands of officials who sanctioned the arrest of their subordinates. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Communist Party members voted for the expulsion of the "enemies of the people".

It was more common to go with the flow, as the Soviet writer A. Pismenny shows in this quotation:

Of course, I could not believe that Ivan Kataev, Nikolai Zarudin, Boris Guber, Michail Loskutov, Sergei Urnis, or many other friends of mine were spies, bomb-throwing anarchists planning to kill Stalin, loathsome poisoners of reservoirs, or enemy agents... However I might try today to ridicule my tossing and turning and — why hide it, when everything is being said? — my search for spiritual peace; the fact is that then above all I wanted to understand. Yes, yes, I repeat once again, I wanted not only to believe but to understand what was happening.

...But in those years it was impossible to understand what was happening. You could become an informer, go mad, commit suicide, but if you wanted to live, the most convenient way for an unhappy distraught, but honourable person clinging with his last ounce of strength to his place in society — I repeat and will go on repeating a thousand times — was to believe. To believe without reasoning, without second thoughts, without proofs, as people believe in omens, in god, in the devil, in life beyond the grave. The thought that all social actions could be promoted by the criminal designs of a single man who had appropriated the full plenitude of power, and that this man was Stalin, was blasphemous, was unbelievable.

The cult of personality can be overstated, but it did make it easier for Stalin to gain and maintain his power and remove any inconvenient people, while at the same time these very crimes, supported by the apparatus of the state and by the millions of deluded people, extended and reinforced the cult of personality.

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Absence of open disclosure and freedom of criticism

The main Bolshevik newspaper was called Pravda, a Russian word meaning truth. In the early days of 1917 the Bolshevik policy was maximum public disclosure, or glasnost. In those days, of course, there was considerable political advantage in the struggle against Tsarist forces. Later such public disclosure was not quite so advantageous. Stalin and the NKVD had no interest in either public criticism or public disclosure of their actions. They much preferred secrecy as the major mode of operation.

Although we now have a little bit of knowledge about what happened in Stalin's Russia, this is considerably more than the Russians at that time would have known. The arrest of hundreds of leaders was not reported in the newspapers, so the only people who would have known were those in immediate contact with the victim, at work or at home. But the person may have been suddenly transferred, and not only once; perhaps he or she may have been transferred two or three or four times, either to a different workplace or to a special camp—where there were "no rights of correspondence".

The authorities might also keep claiming that the person had been transferred even after he had already been shot. I would not like you to think that the Russians lacked a sense of humour in all this. One wife who was trying to find out where her husband was, got the message each time that he had been transferred, but the last time the message changed to "he has been transferred to the cemetery"!

One further way the authorities had to confuse the situation was the great variety of ways they used to kill "enemies of the people". Victims of the terror might die during attempted robberies, or they might suicide, or have an accident, or suffer a heart attack. The point to note is that nowhere was there a list of Stalin's victims that one could read. Basically, no one save Stalin and his aides would have had much of an idea of the real extent of the terror.

This was able to occur because there was no freedom of the press to report on government activities. Karl Marx had once claimed that unless you had freedom of the press, all other freedoms were illusory; but Lenin maintained press censorship, though he always claimed that this was only a temporary measure. Stalin and his aides gave out only the information they wanted published; and they had a monopoly over the printed word as well as over the film image, since they personally saw every motion picture before it was released. Thus the control over the media was used to support Stalin's policies and actions.

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The domestic and international situations

Because of the points mentioned so far, the Soviet people knew little about Stalin's despotic nature and criminal activities. What they did know was a selection of the official propaganda which emphasised, naturally enough, the positive aspects of government achievements usually linked with Stalin's name, i.e., the glories of the Five-Year Plans.

To this day it has been difficult, if not entirely impossible, to sort out what Stalin was personally responsible for, and what was merely done in his name. What we tend to see in any examination of the domestic situation in Russia is a weird mixture of contradictions.

  1. While party and state leaders were being arrested as enemies of the people, schools, factories and "palaces of culture" were built.
  2. While military leaders were arrested as spies, a strong army was established.
  3. While scientists were arrested as wreckers, Soviet science was strongly established with party support.
  4. While nationalists in the various sections of the Soviet Union were arrested, life in the oppressed nationalities improved.

So the general domestic picture under Stalin is a mixture of improvements and oppressions. But, so far as the average Russian was concerned, there was much to view with pride. With this pride went increasing confidence in the party that was organising it, and to the leader who stood at the top.

As far as the international scene was concerned, the main point to remember was that at this time the Soviet Union was the only socialist state. The capitalist countries were in control of the global situation. Not surprisingly, this generated an atmosphere of some alarm, which was used by Stalin. Most Russians were prepared to believe that there was a fascist conspiracy against the Soviet people. A typical consequence was to believe that there was a fifth column operating inside Russia to prepare the way for the invasion. Stalin was able to exploit the people in this way. He could rely on their willingness to suffer now in the hope of a better future. Additionally, he could rely on their patriotism—their love for the motherland! If you had been a Russian in the late 1930s, who would you have chosen if the choice were Hitler or Stalin? Was there really any choice?

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Centralisation and length of term of office

To some extent the party structure inherited by Stalin made life easy for his ambitions. The Bolsheviks were an extremely centralised party, and this tendency accelerated as the Bolsheviks had to face not only internal but also external threats. In effect the party became militarised, with all the connotations of strictly enforced obedience to the leader's commands that the term "military" implies. One can argue in favour of this policy when the country was under extreme stress—I am referring here, of course, to the period of civil war. However, it is obviously less defensible when the country was under a completely different set of conditions. Roy Medvedev argues that Lenin was in favour of some moderation, but as far as I am aware, no one has ever accused Stalin of wanting any moderation in this severe discipline. Indeed, he moved from extreme centralism to absolutism. His wishes became the law—whether these wishes were written down or not.

In a democracy the leader has periodically to renew his mandate from the people by going to elections. In this way the democracy can regularly change its leadership. In the Soviet Union there was no such system for regularly changing the leadership of the party. This was clear on the death of Lenin when there was no second-in-charge ready to assume even temporary control pending some voting process. When Stalin gained total control, he was there for as long as he could maintain his power. While we may find many things to criticise about Stalin, there can be few doubts about his political skills. So, once Stalin got to the top, there he was to stay, in effect, until he died.

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The Bolshevik Party's political monopoly

When the power of the Tsar ended in Russia in early 1917, power passed to the bourgeois parties in the Dumas, which formed a Provisional Committee and then a Provisional Government. The dominant political party was not the Mensheviks or the Bolsheviks, but the Cadet Party led by Pavel Milyukov.

Outside this structure was another one established by the workers and soldiers—who had a fair idea that the Provisional Government, whatever it was going to do, was not going to be entirely in their interests. Since they had taken control of the February Revolution, the workers and the soldiers wanted a structure which would reflect their ambitions, so they rapidly established the now famous Soviets of Workers and Soldiers Deputies.

So there was a dual power structure which badly needed integrating—or, to put it more usefully, whoever could integrate the two structures would end up in power. Lenin's slogan of 'All power to the Soviets" reflected his attempt to control this power group. He apparently wanted the support of the Social Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and the Anarchists in the Dumas as well. Throughout 1917 the Bolsheviks worked rapidly to achieve a majority in the major cities. According to Medvedev, Lenin always anticipated that in a free election there would be a number of other leftist parties. But the Civil War made these elections almost impossible. In any case, by 1921, those actually supporting the Bolsheviks were in the minority. So the Bolsheviks gradually excluded all other parties. What started as a theory, where there should be a dictatorship of the proletariat, became a system where there was dictatorship by the party. Although the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks struggled on, by the late 1920s there was only one party. To make sure everyone got the message, there was a massive propaganda campaign to the effect that any opposition was seen as counter-revolutionary, and by that stage in Soviet history, to be seen as a counter-revolutionary was a life-threatening perception!

As a consequence then, with Stalin at the head of the Bolshevik Party, with no other open political opposition possible, he was clearly in a very strong position. There was no limit to his tenure, opposition in legal terms was impossible, illegal opposition was also rather dangerous!

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Perversion of Lenin's conception of party unity

What was Communist theory in all of this? Lenin never argued that party unity meant absolute suppression of different groups and ideas. He appeared to understand that while unity tends to give strength, there may be serious weaknesses if this also means a lack of debate, especially if the party is moving as one man, but in the wrong direction!

In the mid-1920s most party activists had the idea that when there were serious differences on important questions, party members had the right to criticise the upper echelons of the decision-makers, in other words the right of opposition. When Stalin became master of the party, he denounced not only the views of particular opposition groups but also opposition in general. In this way conscious opposition was replaced by blind obedience to the will of the leader. Stalin and his group could do no wrong and could make no mistakes. Any opposition was seen as either bourgeois or imperialist.

Such attitudes obviously helped Stalin consolidate his power. Medvedev expresses this situation thus: "He exploited the admirable concept of the unity of the working class and of all communists, to actually split the party and exterminate any party members he found unsuitable."

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Stalin's personal control over the agencies of repression

Lenin, whose role in the establishment of the system which Stalin inherited still has not been given very close analysis, established the Cheka, or Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, an institution originally designed to be a combined military, administrative, punitive agency to attack and destroy the internal enemy. The problem was that they allowed themselves a very wide definition of what was a counter-revolutionary. If, for example, you had parents who had belonged to the wrong social class, then you could be classified as a counter-revolutionary.

After the Civil War the Cheka was restructured and transformed into the GPU (Main Political Administration). Its powers were limited, if that is the correct word, to investigation of serious state crimes such as espionage, banditry, and political and economic counter-revolutionaries. Under Stalin, who had appointed Yagoda as director of the GPU, the organisation generally adopted a much more aggressive role, reported only to Stalin:

Later the GPU became the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs). Would you be surprised to learn that this organisation had greatly enlarged powers over those of the GPU? It had, for example, the ability to convene a Special Assembly, a board which could imprison people for up to five years without a trial. You may not think that this represents a very long time. The point to contemplate, however, is the ability of the prison authorities to find the arrested person disobeying some prison rule; then they could sentence him to further terms of imprisonment, still without trial and potentially for life.

In the 1930s the NKVD staff were given large pay rises, up to four times that of the average worker. In addition the staff had access to the best houses, apartments, rest homes, schools, hospitals and so on. By the second half of the 1930s the NKVD was in reality an army, with divisions and regiments. There were hundreds of thousands of NKVD workers, tens of thousands of officers and a network of informers just about everywhere. Actual dossiers, or files, were kept on tens of millions of Russians.

Perhaps even more important than this was the role the NKVD played in supervising top administrators. They guarded, for example, all members of the Politburo; that is, the Politburo could not go anywhere without their official guard, nor could they see anyone without NKVD knowledge. Naturally, there were no judicial controls over any of their activities.

Now I want you to employ some empathy and attempt to see the situation as though you were a member of the NKVD. Your aim, of course, is to stay a member of this organisation which offers you and your family so many advantages. You want, above all else, to maintain this system of privileges; you also have a sneaking feeling that it would be unwise to attempt to opt out. So you find more and more "enemies of the people"—in any case the labour camps require large supplies of labour.

The Gulag (which stands for Main Camp Administration)

These operations used up labour which required rapid replacement, which was used for even more projects (since it was so cheap), so that even more prisoners were needed; and therefore there had to be more repression.

Stalin was thus at the head of a vast organisation which would have been essentially impossible to overthrow or even resist in any really influential way.

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Ends and means in the socialist revolution

The socialist revolution had originally set very high goals. The revolutionaries of 1917 had expected to:

Naturally they expected there to be a long struggle before these ends were achieved. They understood the dangers of external threats to their radical creation. Moreover, they were conscious of their own deficiencies and those of their fellow Russians.

Violence was a common revolutionary tradition—it was expected that force would have to be applied to create the conditions for victory. Terror was seen as a perfectly legitimate means to achieve desirable goals, and just about all revolutionaries tend to believe that as well. The question we must face is to what extent did the Bolsheviks in general, and Stalin in particular, engage in appropriate violence, and to what extent did they participate in superfluous cruelty?

During the Civil War all sorts of unpleasant acts occurred: two commanders of the Red Army Divisions were shot by their own side; men who gave up and changed sides were usually shot; hostages were usually executed. While you could probably argue that the Civil War was an exceptional time, the methods of violence did not really diminish after the Civil War. It would be more correct to argue that institutional violence continued even more. Officials rapidly gained the idea that there would be no limitations on the methods used to fight "enemies of the people". As we have already seen, the definition of who qualified was extremely loose.

There was mass terror against peasants who were just a little more prosperous than their fellows. The more prosperous still, the kulaks, were frequently tortured. Was Stalin the only one who wanted to do this? The answer is, of course, no! Many of the other Bolshevik leaders, as well as the rank and file, wanted these actions to continue. 'Enemies of the people' was an entirely adequate excuse for almost any action.

One Commissar of Justice said in 1930 that "dealing with such people without trial was quite correct behaviour. I was delighted to learn that that particular gentleman was condemned in 1938 and shot without a trial" —poetic justice, or the Russian sense of humour? In 1936 a critic of the NKVD accused them of being too liberal in their actions. He also was shot one year later!

While such might terrify us, the actions fitted neatly into the ideology of the times. Do not forget the Socialist rule that the individual must be sacrificed to the good of the collective. As far as Stalin was concerned, all means were suitable, even the most inhumane.

Stalin did not, however, seek publicity about his role here. Indeed, most people believed that he was not aware of the terror. Many called on him for reassurance, which he almost always gave, but he knew about the lists of people due to be arrested because he had approved the lists in the first place.

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Incomprehension and lack of solidarity

As I have already tried to demonstrate, most Soviet people trusted Stalin, the Party leadership and the NKVD. This trust created tremendous problems for those who became victims; indeed, it put them into a tragic position. We know they were not guilty, they knew they were not guilty, but most people at that time did not believe them, and turned their backs.

So as well as coping with a sense of frustration, they were also isolated from their support networks. A frequent reaction was total passivity—the victims just lost the will to resist. I hope you can appreciate not only the tragedy of their position, but also how easy it became for those in authority to go about these terrible activities.

Most of the victims naturally assumed that a mistake had been made and that everything would be quickly cleared up in the event of their being suddenly arrested. So they went about their normal activities. Remember, their party ideology encouraged enduring everything for the party. In a weird way the mere fact that most of the victims were innocent made it so much easier for them to be arrested; why should they hide or resist if they were innocent of the charges being made against them?

Stalin took advantage of these reactions. He was especially careful to sow dissension among the top level of his officials to encourage them to be suspicious of everyone else. One Central Committee member from the Ukraine signed arrest warrants for thousands of Ukrainian party officials. In his turn he was arrested on the charge of "exterminating cadre", and shot... another Stalin joke?

All of this made resistance very difficult. Anyone who wanted to resist was isolated from his or her community, and it was impossible to coordinate resistance. What could be done in the 1930s? You could only appeal to those in authority, ask those above you—but they were the very ones conducting the crimes.

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Bureaucratisation and degeneration

Since the heady days of 1917 and the dangers of the Civil War, government had changed. The old revolutionaries had to become bureaucrats. Many now joined the party for the advantages it offered by way of promotion, housing and other privileges. Many of these found that the old revolutionaries were ill-equipped to control government departments. So what Russia ended up with was a large group of people who owed everything to Stalin, and consequently supported him in everything. Gromyko comes to mind, also Khrushchev.

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Lack of effective popular control

The bureaucracy is the control over people by privileged people elevated above the masses. In a capitalist society such as ours, periodic elections tend to act as a control over these people. In the USA, for example, the incoming president has the job of selecting several hundred people, perhaps thousands, to fill the vacancies in the civil service. In a socialist society the bureaucrats are not subject to such controls and may begin to abuse the power given to them.

In socialist theory there needed to be some way in which the proletariat could control their deputies and representatives, so Lenin established a committee formed of workers and peasants to oversee the actions of the Politburo. This committee, known as the Central Control Commission (CCC), had access to all actions and decisions of the Politburo.

As Stalin gradually gained influence, he was able to minimise the powers of the CCC. He did this by directing their attention downwards and away from the Politburo and the Secretariat. The effect of this was to open the way for an increase in the bureaucratic methods of control, and consequently weakened the struggle against the abuse of power.

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Insufficient education, culture and democratic traditions

Medvedev argued in his book (Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism) that Stalin was supported by the majority of the Soviet people, both because he was clever enough to deceive them and because they were backward enough to be deceived. Factors involved in this included:

Stalin was essentially successful because he was able to catch the mood of the masses: he used their revolutionary passions, their hatred for enemies of the people, oversimplified slogans, intensification of the class struggle, and the need to destroy the enemies of the people.

Stalin was basically an uneducated man who recruited other uneducated people who despised the intelligentsia. They were proud of their ignorance. The intelligent ones were quietened; the masses supported Stalin. Patriotism was also a factor; fear of the enemy, both known and unknown. If not Stalin, who else?

See The Country Studies Series (external website) by Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress.

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