[Glynnis Stevenson]

Stalin’s Rise to Power

When Vladimir Lenin passed away in 1924, Josef Stalin had positioned himself well as Lenin’s successor. In 1912, Stalin had served as a member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. After a brief stint in exile in Siberia, Stalin moved to Petrograd in 1917. He did not play a large role in the October Revolution nor in the ensuing Civil War, but between 1917 and 1924, he worked tirelessly to move up the hierarchy of the Bolshevik Party. From 1917 to 1924, he served as People’s Commissar for Nationalities, liaison official between the Politburo and the Orgburo, and as the General Secretary of the Party. Despite Stalin’s service to the Party, Lenin was wary of his ruthless ambition. In his Political Testament and the ensuing codicil of January 1923, Lenin recommended that Stalin be removed from his post as General Secretary of the Party. No further action could be pursued after Lenin’s death in January 1924 and Stalin eagerly pushed to the front of the pack of contenders to succeed Lenin.

Many saw Stalin as less of a threat than Leon Trotsky, whose ties to the military could have led to a full-blown military dictatorship. Thus, the two other front-runners, Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev, joined with Stalin as a sort of “power-sharing triumvirate”(Lee 1999). The trio professed a commitment to “Socialism in One Country,”(Lee 1999) which gave priority to a steady revival of the economy within Russia proper by continuing Lenin’s New Economic Policy, started in 1921. Challenging this policy was Leon Trotsky’s commitment to “Permanent Revolution”(Lee 1999). Trotsky wanted to stir up revolution both at home and abroad, inciting rapid industrialization and instituting collectivization of farming. Trotsky’s radicalism failed to gather a large enough following and Trotsky’s star faded over the course of 1925.

The power-sharing between Stalin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev had been tenuous from the beginning, but conflicts between 1925 and 1927 doomed the longevity of the trio. Kamenev and Zinoviev had come to the realization that Trotsky posed less of a threat than Stalin and aligned themselves with Trotsky to form the “Left Opposition”(Lee 1999). In response, Stalin aligned himself with the “Rightists” (Lee 1999) of the Party, such as Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, and Mikhail Tomsky. The “Rightist” alliance promptly ousted Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev from the Party, but Stalin soon turned on his allies. In 1929, Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky were all removed from office. By the end of the year, Stalin was the unquestioned leader of the Bolshevik Party. Like Lenin before him, Bukharin warned others of Stalin’s unquenchable thirst for power, saying: “He is an unprincipled intriguer who subordinates everything to his lust for power.”[1]Stalin did not only abandon his former allies, he also discarded his promises to support Lenin’s moderate NEP. Stalin favored the more radical processes of radical industrialization and collectivization that Trotsky had espoused, only Stalin detested the concept of “Permanent Revolution.”

Stalinist Economic Policies

Immediately following the October Revolution, the Bolshevik Party took measures to transform the economy to conform to the communist ideal. The first task was to seize aristocratic lands and give them to the peasantry. From there, the Bolsheviks nationalized foreign trade the key armaments factories. The Russian Civil War (1917-1923) necessitated a policy of “War Communism”(Lee 1999), which requisitioned grain produced by peasants to feed the army and factory workers. By 1921, the Party realized that War Communism was highly unpopular and threatened the longevity of the Bolshevik regime. To protect the regime, Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which privatized some farms and industries. Peasants with special licenses could sell their grain on the market. The NEP garnered support for the regime and Party “Rightists” supported its continuation.

Some within the Party, such as Trotsky, favored rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture as a way of ensuring the “Permanent Revolution.”Early on, Stalin supported continuing the plans laid out in the NEP, but he replaced this policy with rapid industrialization by 1928. Stalin’s change of heart followed disastrous agricultural crises in both 1926 and 1927, in which just seventeen percent of grain produced actually reached urban areas. With these crises as his excuse, Stalin imposed mandatory collectivization of all peasant land in 1928. That same year, Stalin introduced the first of a series Five-Year Plans, designed to revamp the Soviet Union’s industrial base. The State Planning Bureau, or Gosplan, was entrusted with carrying out the goals of the Five-Year Plan. The Five-Year Plan stressed the importance of producing industrial goods, especially coal, steel, oil, and weapons, rather than consumer goods. Two more Five-Year Plans were announced in 1933 and 1937, respectively, but the Third Five-Year Plan was interrupted by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

Land collectivization proceeded at a dizzying pace and the ensuing chaos forced Stalin to call for a consolidation period. He accused the State Planning Bureau of having acted as though “dizzy with success”(Lee 1999). Collectivization was given another try in 1932, but unfortunately coincided with a major famine. Many peasants slaughtered their own livestock to resist collectivization, making agricultural recovery very difficult. In the industrial sector, there was a boom in the number of people in the workforce. Peasants from impoverished regions flooded new industrial complexes like the one at Magnitogorsk and Siberia was tapped as a new center for industry. Thus, Soviet industry boomed, but at the expense of agriculture.

Stalinist Government and Terror

After coming to power in 1924, Stalin built upon the political system already established by Lenin. Stalin benefited from the Bolshevik consolidation of all state institutions and the elimination of opposing political forces, such as the Mensheviks, in the 1920 and 1921 purges. Along these lines, Stalin added some changes of his own. Early on, Stalin had made sure other knew to fear him. Once taking power, his first task was to eliminate restrictions on his personal power and destroy any vestiges of democracy. Through the Orgburo, which he controlled, Stalin was able to exert his influence over the Politburo and dominate all of the committees within the Party. All important decisions were to be made by the Politburo, not the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom). Stalin believed strongly in Party unity under one person.

In 1936, Stalin introduced a new Constitution for the Soviet Union, which would remain untouched until slight amendments were made by Leonid Brezhnev in 1977. Stalin’s changes included universal suffrage at age eighteen, use of a secret ballot in voting, and an end to favoritism of the urban working class over the peasantry in voting. Stalin also altered the composition in the soviets in the constitution, insisting that its chambers be based on electoral districts to reflect the Soviet Union’s ethnic diversity. In writing at least, Stalin could prove that his regime involved the population more in politics than any before it. Sadly, the constitution was entirely a façade created to legitimize Stalin’s regime. Any claims to be involving the populace in the political process were cancelled out by the virtual destruction of democracy within the Party that controlled the constitution. There was no law limiting Stalin’s authority; the constitution had no intrinsic power. The Party pursued whatever policies they deemed necessary, whether that meant collectivization or purging enemies of the state.

Stalin’s regime is most associated with terror. In terms of numbers of casualties, Stalin’s purges are unrivaled in human history. The causes of this “reign of terror” are too complex to be solely attributed to Stalin. All revolutions have two basic goals: to maintain power and to leave a legacy. The struggle to maintain power can often lead to bloody purges against “enemies of the state.”Terror is legitimized as a powerful positive force, a “cleansing purge” (Lee 1999). Before Stalin came to power, Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were purged in the trials of 1922. These early purges were officially ended in 1922, but they left a legacy. Stalin’s terror can even be seen as an extension of the precedent set under Lenin.

The most important reason for the terror was Stalin’s own consolidation of power. Stalin feared any potential opposition. Many of his victims were obvious. The show trial of 1936 ridded Stalin of both Kamenev and Zinoviev and later “trials” purged the Party of Piatakov, Sokolnikov, Bukharin, Rykov, and Yagoda. Other victims seemed to have been added to the list on a quota basis. Stalin’s fear that someone would challenge him had wide-ranging consequences. There is also an economic basis for Stalin’s terror. The forced rapid pace of industrialization and mandatory collectivization required a very passive and compliant labor force and peasantry. Force was necessary to get the economy where Stalin wanted it. The NKVD’s “Dekulakization” Squads combed rural areas to root out opposition (both real and imagined) to collectivization. The requirements of the Second and Third Five-Year Plans were met with the installation of the Gulag system. Forced labor built the Belomor Canal, first opened in 1933, and was the mainstay of mining in Siberia, especially in the harsh Kolyma region. Stalinist modernization and terror were intrinsically linked.

Stalin and Foreign Policy

After the October Revolution, Soviet Russia became increasingly isolated from the international community. In 1922, Soviet Russia and Germany shocked the international community by agreeing on a treaty at Rapallo that ensured diplomatic friendship and provided for trade between the two nations. The 1926 Treaty of Berlin, a neutrality pact, tightened the provisions of the Treaty of Rapallo. But the Soviet Union had trouble forming close relationships with the other Western powers. Diplomatic connections with Britain were established in 1924, but were broken by Britain in 1927, and were then re-established in 1929. From this, it logically followed that Soviet Russia’s best bet for an alliance was with Germany.

The rise of Hitler in 1933 complicated Soviet policy. From 1931 to 1933, Stalin believed that Hitler would be a good friend to the Soviet Union. There was no reason initially to revoke the Treaty of Berlin. By 1935, however, Stalin had approached France and drawn up a Franco-Soviet Pact, which guaranteed Czechoslovakian independence by the Treaty of Mutual Assistance. The Soviet Union joined the League of Nations, which Hitler had pulled Germany out of, and Stalin’s Foreign Minister Litvinov favored the policy of collective security that aimed at containing Germany. Soviet aid to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War showed Stalin to be a staunch anti-fascist. Only the Soviet Union gave help to the forces fighting Franco and his Nationalist troops, who were armed by Hitler and Mussolini.

The build up to the Second World War, between September 1938 and August 1939, was a critical period in Stalin’s foreign policy. The Soviet Union was not part of the Anglo-French policy concerning Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia and Stalin feared the policy of appeasement that made many concessions to Hitler. Early in 1939, the Soviet Union urged Britain and France to commit themselves to fighting Germany, but they were given no answer. Foreign Minister Molotov was forced to arrange secret discussions with German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop. These secret discussions produced a Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939. This pact was both a declaration of non-aggression and an agreement to partition Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. The following month, Germany and the Soviet Union proceeded to dismember Poland.

Stalin believed he had ensured the survival of the Soviet Union, as Hitler was focused on the Western Front during 1940. Confident, Stalin sent troops to conquer Finland, but this failure only proved that the Soviet forces were vulnerable. Stalin demanded of Hitler territory in both the Baltic states and Romania, all the while ignoring the warnings from the Allied Powers and from his own intelligence services that Hitler was now orienting his forces to invade the Soviet Union. When German forces attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin was caught off his guard completely and the ensuing battles were the bloodiest of the entire war. Earlier, Stalin had ordered troops in Soviet-occupied Poland to withdraw, which allowed German panzer divisions to invade the Ukraine easily. By 1942, the Germans had a front passing from Leningrad in the north, cutting through Moscow, and ending around Stalingrad in the south. Hitler was convinced that the German forces were victorious.

Despite colossal losses of both men and equipment, the Soviet troops staged a remarkable comeback. The Battle for Moscow was major success that kept the German forces from taking the Soviet capital. Soviet defense of Stalingrad was so unyielding that the Germans were forced to surrender in 1943. The Soviet offensive gained momentum after a tank battle at Kursk and the Red Army pushed onwards. They recaptured Kiev by November 1943 and Leningrad early on in 1944. Pushing German troops out of Soviet territory as they went, the Soviet army marched into Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. By 1945, led by Zhukov, the Red Army was marching into Germany and successfully captured Berlin in April. Total war came at enormous cost, but resulted in a total victory.

After the Second World War

The Soviet Union could not rest to celebrate its victory over Nazi Germany. Stalin desperately needed to revive a bruised and bloodied population. More than twenty three million Soviet troops and civilians had perished in the war and the Germans had destroyed thousands of towns, farms, and factories (Lee 1999). Stalin wanted to restart the economy without the help of the West. First, Stalin reinstated the planning controls of the 1930s. The Fourth and Fifth Five-Year Plans ran from 1946 to 1950 and 1950 to 1955, respectively. Stalin died in 1953, but his successors Malenkov and Khrushchev ensured the completion of the Fifth Five-Year Plan. Stalin’s commitment to collectivization of agriculture and the development of heavy industry was unyielding. The Marshall Plan was offered to help the Soviet Union rebuild itself, but Stalin refused it to protect Soviet self-sufficiency.

Politically, Stalin reasserted his preeminence within the Party. He dissolved the wartime State Defense Committee (GOKO) and rarely convened the Central Committee and Politburo. The Party Congress was altogether ignored. The NKVD, under Beria, operated under a policy of terror from which not even the soldiers of the Red Army were safe. New purges brought new officials. The Postwar period of Stalin’s reign were dominated by Cold War politics. The differences of opinion between the Soviet Union and the West had emerged at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945. Stalin was adamant that the Soviet Union play the major role in the creation of postwar governments in Eastern Europe. The Western Allies immediately accused Stalin of breaking the Declaration on Liberated Europe, which enforced the right of all nations to free elections. Stalin saw eastern Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania as a buffer zone against the Western Allies. From 1948 on, Stalin established Comecon and Cominform to administer the Soviet Union’s new territories. The West saw the Communist conquest of Eastern Europe as proof that an “Iron Curtain” had fallen between East and West. Stalin increased the Soviet military presence in Eastern Europe and in 1949, the Soviet Union had an atomic bomb in their arsenal. Mutually-Assured Destruction ensured that the Cold War did not turn hot, but it would be over forty years of burning enmity between the Soviet Union and the West.

Stalin’s Legacy

Stalin’s reign was rife with brutality but not necessarily effective. Like in Nazi Germany, totalitarianism in the Soviet model had many flaws. Stalin’s domestic policy of the 1930s was terribly inefficient. The Second World War was unnecessarily bloody and many lives could have been saved had Stalin heeded his own intelligence services. After 1945, Stalin was vulnerable to the very forces he had been allied with in the war. To prevent any influx of Western ideas, Stalin reinstated the controls that had paralyzed the Soviet Union in the 1930s but had been relaxed during the war.

Following Stalin, Khrushchev attempted to revive the most dilapidated sector of society, agriculture. Brezhnev’s replacement of Khrushchev brought an attempted revival of Stalinist centralization, but the Soviet Union’s withering infrastructure, which had begun to wither during Stalin’s reign, was vulnerable to Western ideas and competition, leading to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.


Works Cited:

  • Miklós Kun, Stalin: An Unknown Portrait (Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2002).
  • Stephen J. Lee, Stalin and the Soviet Union (London and New York City: Routledge, 1999).
  • Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).