THE HISTORY OF RUSSIA

Charles E. Ziegler

 

The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations
Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Findling, Series Editors
Greenwood Press / Westport, Connecticut London / 1999

    

 

 

 

 

6

 

Building Communism, 1921-1953

Communism alone is capable of giving really complete democracy.

Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution

 

In order to overthrow capitalism it was necessary not only to remove the bourgeoisie from power, not only to expropriate the capitalists, but also to smash entirely the bourgeois state machine, its old army, its bureaucratic officialdom and its police force, and to substitute for it a new, proletarian form of state, a new socialist state. And that, as we know, is exactly what the Bolsheviks did.

Joseph Stalin, "Report to the Eighteenth Congress" ( 1939)

 

Stalin is the personification of the bureaucracy.

Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed

 

The years of war, revolution, intervention, civil war, and famine left Russia exhausted, but established the Bolsheviks firmly in control of the country. The expected world communist revolution had not material ized, so Russia's new communist rulers turned their efforts toward building "socialism in one country," as Stalin termed it. Aside from the loss of a few territories on the periphery, Soviet Russia retained most of the domains of the tsarist empire. Ethnic Russians constituted only threefifths of the population of this multinational state; over one hundred separate ethnic groups made up the remainder. The Soviet government's proclaimed commitment to equality for all nations led to the formation of a unique structure of state authority, national in form but socialist in content.

Although the Bolshevik leadership was ideologically committed to centralized control, Lenin urged the creation of a system of national republics, equal in status, to allow limited autonomy for different ethnic groups. Stalin, who was Commissar of Nationalities, favored subordination of the minority groups within Russia, but he lost to Lenin on this issue. Russia's second constitution, adopted in 1924, created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In a concession to the national minorities, the USSR was to be organized as a federal system providing for limited autonomy--education and publishing in national languages, some cultural freedom, and local control over minor matters. But this was a sham federalism. The republics had no sovereign authority; that is, powers which were legally guaranteed. Moscow could override any actions that were deemed incompatible with the interests of socialism, as defined by the Communist Party.

The Party itself was to remain highly centralized, and of course Party decisions were final. Theoretically, the Party was a democratic institution organized on the principle of "democratic centralism": ideas and suggestions would be put forward and voting would occur at each level of the Party, starting from the lowest cell and eventually reaching the Politburo, the highest decision-making body. Once decisions were reached at the center, they would be carried out loyally, without question, by lower Party organizations. In reality, the process was never very democratic, and provided an ideal vehicle for the concentration of power. Stalin, who was appointed General Secretary of the Party in 1922, used this position to build a loyal cadre of his supporters within the Party bureaucracy. Stalin's organizational talents and his strategic position in the Party would enable him to outmaneuver Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Gregorii Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and the other more visible and gifted leaders of the October Revolution, and establish an absolute personal dictatorship by the early 1930s.

Although Lenin never possessed the power that Stalin later accumulated, he was easily the dominant figure of the Revolution. But Lenin had been in poor health since 1919, when he was wounded in an assassination attempt. In 1922 Lenin had his first stroke; a second followed in 1923, and the "old man" (he was not yet fifty-four) died in January 1924. Absent any institutionalized means of succession, the top Party leaders engaged in the behind-the-scenes jockeying for power typical of authoritarian political systems. Lenin had left a "political testament" assessing the characteristics of his potential successors, which Joseph Stalin later suppressed. Trotsky, Lenin wrote, was clearly the most intellectual and capable of the Bolshevik leaders, but too self-confident. The Georgian Stalin had concentrated "boundless power" in his hands through his control of the Party Secretariat, and might not use it wisely. In any case, Stalin was rude--he had clashed with Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin's wife--and the dying leader recommended that his comrades find a way of easing Stalin from power. But Stalin used the occasion of Lenin's funeral to enhance his own legitimacy, employing pseudo-religious imagery to create a cult worshipping the dead revolutionary. Busts and statues of Lenin became ubiquitous; a mausoleum was built on Red Square to house his remains; and the former capital was renamed Leningrad in his honor.

Stalin was born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, the son of a drunken Georgian bootmaker from Gori, in 1879. He studied for five years at an Orthodox theological seminary in Tiflis. He joined a Georgian socialist movement in 1898, the year of the founding congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. He joined Lenin's Bolshevik faction shortly before the outbreak of the Revolution of 1905. Arrested several times in his revolutionary career, Stalin (the name means "man of steel") spent close to seven years in tsarist prisons or Siberian exile. Stalin, or "Koba," as he liked to be called, helped fund the Bolshevik Party by organizing robberies in his native Caucasus. Never a towering intellect or a great orator (to the end of his life he spoke Russian with a thick Georgian accent), Stalin was an adroit political infighter and a master manipulator. Once he had consolidated power, he seldom ventured outside the Kremlin, and had virtually no contact with the Soviet people.

Communist Party politics in the 1920s was characterized by factionalism, as various coalitions formed and reformed in the Party hierarchy based on their participants' positions on the New Economic Policy (NEP). From the Revolution political power had been concentrated in the Central Committee and especially the smaller Political Bureau (Po litburo) of the Communist Party. Government cabinets had been renamed "commissariats" (which was deemed to be a more revolutionary term than "ministries"), and the cabinet was called the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom). The general governing pattern was that government existed to carry out the Party's orders, and the Party leadership was responsible to no one but itself. The fundamental democratic principle of keeping rulers accountable to the public through elections had been rejected by Lenin and his successors as "sham bourgeois democracy."

In the early post- Lenin power struggle Stalin first aligned himself with Zinoviev and Kamenev against Trotsky. Stalin's chief theoretical contribution of the time--the idea of building socialism in one country--was presented as an alternative to Trotsky's insistence on pursuing world revolution. Soviet communists had established the Third Communist International, or Comintern, in 1919 with the express purpose of spreading communism around the world. By the time of Lenin's death, however, the prospects that other industrial nations might go communist seemed dim, and the Comintern became essentially an instrument of Soviet foreign policy, forming and guiding communist parties in the colonial regions of China, India, and Africa. Stalin used his assertion that the Soviet Union could build socialism by itself, together with his influential position in the Party, to discredit Trotsky and secure his dismissal as head of the Red Army in 1925.

In the latter half of the 1920s Stalin deserted Zinoviev and Kamenev, and allied with Nikolai Bukharin, the Party's chief theoretician. Stalin and Bukharin promoted their moderate positions on NEP, critiquing the more radical, "leftist" positions of Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev. By 1928 Stalin had forced all three out of the Communist Party. Zinoviev and Kamenev admitted their mistakes and had their Party membership reinstated. Trotsky refused to recant, was exiled briefly to Alma Ata, the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan in Central Asia, and in the following year was deported from the Soviet Union. After brief stays in Europe and the United States, he settled in Mexico City, where in 1940 an agent of Stalin's secret police gained his confidence and subsequently murdered him with an ice pick. Ironically, Trotsky was finishing a biography of his nemesis at the time of his assassination.

Under NEP the economy recovered quickly, although agriculture outpaced industry. A grain surplus in 1923 drove down prices for farmers, while the prices of manufactured goods, still in short supply, were increasing. This "scissors crisis" led peasants to withhold their products in he hope of obtaining higher prices in the future. For many Bolshevik leaders, this market behavior threatened their plans for industrialization and reinforced their suspicion of the peasants' political reliability.

During NEP most villages had reverted to traditional practices--rotating land strips, governing through the mir--in short, to rural Russian life much as it had been before the Revolution. One difference was the existence of a network of private traders, or Nepmen, some of whom became quite wealthy. Nepmen were frequently resented for their prosperity, as were the kulaks, or prosperous peasants. By 1927-1928 NEP had succeeded in restoring agriculture and industry to prewar levels. NEP's limited capitalism, however, had also increased social differentiation. The privileges and wealth of some private entrepreneurs and officials provoked jealousy and conflicted with the egalitarian goals of the Revolution. Stalin used this simmering resentment when in 1928-1929 he convinced the Politburo to embark on a massive program of rapid industrialization.

 

CULTURE

The early revolutionary era was a time of great expectations and great experimentation in culture. Lured by a radically new vision of society, the avant-garde flocked to Petrograd and Moscow. Anna Akhmatova, Aleksandr Blok, and Boris Pasternak read their poems to rapt audiences in smoky cafes. Directors Vsevolod Meyerhold and Evgenii Vakhtangov staged political plays for the masses. Constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin designed his model for a huge monument to the Comintern, consisting of three geometric shapes. The top level of this 400-meter tower would rotate once a day, the middle level once a month, and the base once each year. The project was never begun; the model, however, can be seen today in Moscow's Pushkin Museum.

Few Bolsheviks were enthusiastic about these new art forms. They believed that art should be accessible to the masses, promote communist values, and not be too complicated--in other words, art should serve political purposes. This was the reasoning behind socialist realism, the guiding principle of art which emerged in the 1920s and exerted a stifling influence on creativity. Early on, democratically minded intellectuals had resisted the authoritarian impulse of the Bolsheviks. Evgenii Zamyatin, a freethinking member of the Party since 1905, published a powerful dystopian novel in 1920, We, about a society in which individualism was crushed by the collective, and numbers replaced names. Reviled by the authorities, Zamyatin left Russia in 1922, as did the painters Marc Chagall (after briefly serving as Commissar of Culture for his native Vitebsk province) and Vassily Kandinsky. The poet Sergei Yesenin killed himself in a Leningrad hotel in 1925; Vladimir Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930. Those who stayed in Russia, and stayed alive, were forced to work within the constraints of socialism. The alternative was to write "for the drawer," hiding politically unacceptable manuscripts from the authorities. Merely possessing such material was grounds for a stiff sentence in the labor camps.

Socialist realist artists produced novels, paintings, and music that advanced the cause of building socialism. Soviet literature created idealized worlds where individuals sacrificed themselves for the common good, whether fighting the Whites in the Civil War or completing massive construction projects against great odds. Painters portrayed hard-working peasants, heroic Lenins and Stalins inspecting the progress of socialism, and dedicated factory workers or Red Army soldiers. Vera Mukhina's massive statue of a worker and a kolkhoz (collective farm) woman, located just outside the Exposition of the Achievements of the National Economy in north Moscow, is stereotypical socialist realism. Young, strong, and made of steel, the two stand side by side, emblematic hammer and sickle raised skyward, pointing the way toward the future.

Some examples of socialist realism rank as solid artistic achievements. In film, for example, Sergei Eisenstein Battleship Potemkin (about the sailors' revolt during the 1905 Revolution), and October (the 1917 Revolution), both released in 1925, are superb examples of early cinema. His 1938 movie, Aleksandr Nevskii, recounts the famous battle on the ice of Lake Peipus, when the Novgorod leader defeated the Teutonic Knights. Released shortly before Hitler launched World War II, Aleksandr Nevskii was a patriotic call to arms for Russians, as well as superb cinema. Mikhail Sholokov's And Quiet Flows the Don ( 1927), a novel about the Revolution and Civil War, won its author a Nobel Prize for literature in 1965. Unfortunately, many other great novels, stories, plays, and films could not pass Soviet censorship until the glasnost era under Mikhail Gorbachev.

 

 

 

CREATING THE "NEW SOVIET MAN"

Soviet communists deliberately sought to transform society, breaking down the inegalitarian class structures of the tsarist era. For Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels the bourgeois family was based on property rela tions; women were enslaved to their husbands in a form of legal prostitution. Proclaiming the full equality of men and women, the new Soviet regime enacted legislation weakening the family unit. Property inheritance was abolished, divorce procedures were simplified, common law marriages were recognized, abortion was granted on demand, and women were given equal legal status with men. Prominent feminist revolutionary Aleksandra Kollontai argued that the family was an outmoded institution repressive to women. Women, she insisted, had the right to full sexual freedom, and family burdens such as child rearing could be accomplished more effectively by the collective.

The task of achieving Revolutionary equality for women was assigned to the Women's Department (Zhenotdel), created in 1919. However, the idea of true equality met with strong resistance from Russia's maledominated culture. Claiming that equality between the sexes had been achieved, the government abolished the Zhenotdel in 1930. With the increasing regimentation of Soviet society in the 1930s, laws strengthening the family were enacted. Abortion was made illegal in 1936, and divorce became more difficult. Soviet art and propaganda glorified women's contributions in building socialism, but much of the emphasis was on their traditional familial roles.

Young people were a special target of the regime, since the attitudes of youth are more malleable. The Communist Party created a youth wing in 1918, the All-Lenin Communist League of Youth, or Komsomol, with membership open to those between the ages of fifteen and twenty-seven. Komsomol organization paralleled that of the Communist Party: the chain of command was hierarchical, with units in high schools, universities, workplaces, and military units. Furthermore, the Komsomol functioned as the Communist Party's primary source of new members. Political lectures, sports contests, chess clubs, nature hikes, and auxiliary labor brigades (for example, to bring in the potato harvest) were organized through the Komsomol. All activities were infused with a strong dose of communist propaganda designed to socialize the participants to Marxist-Leninist values. Younger children were taught obedience and loyalty through the Young Pioneers in middle school and the Octobrists at the elementary school level.

Religion, like the family, was viewed by the Bolsheviks as a mainstay of the old order and an ideological competitor. Marxist theory held that religion, like the state and other parts of the superstructure, would eventually wither away after the transition to socialism. Many leading communists, however, preferred a more active program to exterminate eligion. Thousands of Russian Orthodox priests, monks, and nuns, who generally supported the White forces, were arrested or shot during the Revolution and Civil War. Churches were razed or converted into warehouses, and church property was nationalized. Patriarch Tikhon, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, was arrested and forced to recant his earlier condemnation of the Soviet government.

While religion was sporadically persecuted in the 1920s, agricultural collectivization in the following decade was accompanied by a comprehensive attack on all forms of religion. In Russia, religion was strongest in the rural areas, where 80 percent of the population lived. Priests were equated with rich peasants (kulaks) as reactionary elements. A League of the Militant Godless, aided by the Komsomol, organized atheist lectures, satirized religious holidays, published anti-religious posters and pamphlets, and confiscated church bells and icons. Schools required coursework in scientific atheism, and the newspapers attacked religion as the enemy of socialism. Of more than 54,000 Orthodox churches active before the Revolution, only a handful still functioned in 1939, and those were heavily taxed. Jewish temples, Muslim mosques, and Protestant congregations suffered the same fate. Believers were excluded from Communist Party membership, denied access to prominent positions, and actively harassed in schools and by Soviet youth groups.

Religious persecution eased during World War II, when Stalin discovered that the Church could be useful in mobilizing public sentiment against fascism. The Russian Orthodox Church under Metropolitan Sergei readily lent its support to the struggle against the German invaders. In turn, Stalin permitted churches to reopen, religious literature to be disseminated, and the Patriarchate to be restored. Restrictions were relaxed on other major denominations. However, it was the reinvigoration of Russian Orthodoxy, combined with patriotic Russian nationalism, that strengthened the will to resist Nazism. Marxism-Leninism could not command the same allegiance.

 

 

 

INDUSTRIALIZATION AND COLLECTIZATION

Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders had intended NEP to be only a temporary retreat. The country had recovered to prewar levels of industrial and agricultural production by the late 1920s, but the accompanying social and economic inequalities and the growth of bureaucracy troubled many communists. There was a consensus that the Soviet Union was vulnerable to capitalist remnants internally, and to hostile nations in Europe and Asia, and that the country needed to industrialize rapidly.

The leadership, however, was divided over the pace of renewed industrialization. Party theoretician Nikolai Bukharin led the "Right Opposition," those who wanted to prolong NEP and allow some limited market forces to operate in Soviet Russia. Stalin, in contrast, advocated rapid development, essentially adopting Trotsky's position, which he had previously criticized. In 1928 Stalin got his way, and the Communist Party released the first Five Year Plan, which based industrial production on mandated quotas and shifted the economy toward a command structure. The basic mechanism of supply and demand was ignored. The emphasis was on rapid expansion of heavy industry--approximately 84 percent of investment went into coal, steel, cement, electric power, machine tools, and tractors, rather than consumer goods. Soviet workers were to postpone improvements in their standard of living to build the country's industrial base. Furthermore, the rapid development of heavy industry was judged vital to Soviet national security. In a 1931 speech Stalin observed, "The history of old Russia consisted, among other things, in her being beaten continually for her backwardness." The Mongols, the Swedes, the Poles, the Japanese, the Turks, and the AngloFrench capitalists had defeated and exploited Russia in the past, Stalin continued; transforming the Soviet Union into an industrial power would make it militarily invincible.

The idea of the centrally planned economy was the following. The Party Politburo would set general targets for production of major sectors of the economy, dictating minimal growth rates that must be achieved. The State Planning Committee (Gosplan) would coordinate production among the different government ministries that were tasked with actually carrying out production. Each ministry would have a complex of factories and enterprises to supervise, and just as each ministry was responsible for fulfilling its quota, each enterprise would have a production quota it was required to meet. Quotas were based on the Five Year Plan, broken down into annual and monthly quotas, and were based on quantitative indicators.

It mattered little to the planners in Moscow whether a factory produced poor-quality products, as long as it produced the required amount. The reward system was geared toward fulfilling (and overfulfilling) one's quota; a factory manager who failed could lose bonuses or might even lose his position. In any case, Soviet consumers had no competing products from which to choose. Production was standardized, so that consumers found the same generic products at the same prices on shelves from Vladivostok to Vitebsk.

The central planning system encouraged deception at all levels of the economy. Government officials responsible for fulfilling Party directives were afraid to point out to their superiors that their quotas were impossibly high. They in turn passed along impossible demands to the factories, where records were routinely falsified to make it appear that the quotas had been fulfilled when in reality they had not. "Family circles" of local Party officials and factory managers, acting out of a perfectly rational sense of self-preservation, assured their superiors that the plans were being fulfilled. This cycle of impossible demands from the top down and falsification from the bottom up built into the Soviet economy misinformation and inaccuracies. Officials and economists, as well as outside observers, found it extremely difficult to gauge the real performance of the Soviet economy.

Capitalist incentives such as pay were rejected in favor of moral exhortations. Party propaganda and agitation organs promoted campaigns, like that based around the coal miner Alexei Stakhanov, who overfulfilled his norm by 800 percent, to motivate workers to accomplish great feats. The intent was to create a climate of heroism, urgency, selfsacrifice, and emulation of model workers who were glorified by the state. Since exhorting workers grew old after a while, Soviet planners eventually went to a system of bonuses to encourage higher production. They also encouraged factory teams to engage in "socialist competition" to try and outdo one another in overfulfilling their quotas. Since this competition took place within a socialist system, it was judged to be superior to capitalist competition.

Stalin was convinced that the resources for a successful industrialization program would have to come from the peasantry by extracting enough food from the countryside to feed the new armies of labor and exporting the surplus to pay for foreign machinery and technology. To do this the Soviet government undertook a program of "collectivization"--appropriating private land from the peasants to form large socialist farms. Collectivization of agriculture initially was not part of the first Five Year Plan. When faced with the prospect of grain shortages in 1929, Stalin approved the use of force to requisition grain from the peasants. Under pressure from Moscow, young industrial workers sent from the cities and Party officials began fomenting "class warfare" in the countryside, pitting poor and middle peasants against the "rich" kulaks. The Marxist terminology of class struggle meant nothing to the peasants, who were either confused by it or who saw an opportunity to dispossess their richer neighbors of their property or to settle scores with personal enemies. The result was chaos in the countryside.

On the eve of collectivization only about 3-4 percent of holdings had been converted to collective farms during the eight years of NEP. Of the different models that had evolved, the most acceptable was the artel, in which land, barns, and most livestock were socialized, while peasant families were allowed to retain their homes and a small private plot of land about an acre in size. In these collective farms, or kolkhozy, workers were paid a share of the total farm income for the year. Theoretically, if the entire kolkhoz did well, so would the individual peasants. Of course, if blight or drought ruined the crops, the peasants would suffer commensurately. Because of this, many peasants in the post-Stalin period preferred to live on state farms (sovkhozy) where they were paid a set wage regardless of output.

One central aspect of agricultural collectivization was the goal of establishing complete Communist Party control over the rural villages, where four-fifths of the population lived. Formation of the collective farms was supervised by the Party, and eventually each kolkhoz andsovkhoz would have a Party cell headed by a secretary to monitor its operation. Large machinery was owned by the state; tractors, combines, and other implements were rationed out to the collective farms through machine-tractor stations, adding another element of political control.

The so-called enemies of Soviet power, kulaks were to be "liquidated" as a class. What this meant was that over a million families, 5 to 7 million of the most productive peasants, had their farms and belongings confiscated. Often the "kulaks" were not much better off than their neighbors--they might have a cow and a few extra chickens. These supposed class distinctions were artificial, but necessary from Stalin's perspective in order to implement his goal of subjugating the Russian peasantry. Most of the households dekulakized were deported to bleak regions in central Siberia, Kazakhstan, or northern Russia and were allowed to start over with nothing. Those who were especially suspect, or who resisted (about 100,000) were shot. Rather than have their land, homes, and animals confiscated, many peasants chose to burn their farms and slaughter their livestock. Occasionally they formed armed bands of resistance.

The process of collectivizing agriculture was brutal and inflicted tremendous damage on Soviet agriculture. Peasants could be arrested or shot for withholding grain for next season's planting or merely to survive hrough the winter. In 1932-1933 the Party had extracted so much grain from the countryside that it created a massive famine in Ukraine, southern Russia, and Kazakhstan. In Ukraine, the breadbasket of the USSR, an estimated 5 million peasants died of starvation. Collectivization in Kazakhstan consisted of changing an entire way of life--destroying the nomadic existence of this Turkic Muslim people by forcing them into a sedentary lifestyle, appropriating their livestock, and forcing them to plant grain on land unsuitable for cultivation. Robert Conquest in his 1986 book The Harvest of Sorrow estimates that well over a million Kazakhs died in the repressions of collectivization and the 1932-1933 famine; thousands more fled into neighboring China.

The Soviet government succeeded in obscuring the depth of this tragedy. Many Western observers were already favorably inclined toward the Bolshevik experiment and refused to believe the stories of mass repression. Walter Duranty, a correspondent for the New York Times, toured the famine areas, but his readers learned nothing of the starvation and cannibalism taking place in the countryside. President Herbert Hoover, defeated in 1932 by the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, once again organized relief supplies for the famine victims. The horrors of collectivization did little to dissuade left-wing idealists in the West. Entranced by the massive Soviet effort to transform society and nature, adventurers came from Europe, the United States, and Australia to be a part of this utopian experiment. Compared to the poverty and unemployment of the Great Depression, Soviet Russia may have seemed the wave of the future. In reality, Stalin was leading the country on a "journey into the whirlwind," as writer Evgeniia Ginzburg expressed in her book of the same title.

 

 

 

THE PURGES

Stalin inherited the secret police and concentration camps Lenin had created; he greatly expanded the powers of the former and the scope of the latter. In order to complete the social and economic transformations of the 1930s, Stalin turned toward the massive and indiscriminate use of terror. "Show trials" were often utilized to make an example of "enemies of the state." In the first of these, the 1928 Shakhty coal miners' trial, fifty-three engineers, technical specialists from the tsarist era, were charged with being part of a foreign conspiracy trying to sabotage the coal industry. There was no evidence of guilt, but after days of sleep deprivation, threats, and torture the accused confessed. Most of the de fendants were convicted; five were executed. The Shakhty trial established a pattern of fabricating charges against innocent individuals, coercing confessions from them, threatening retaliation against families to encourage the accused to implicate others, and then staging a trial to demonstrate the government's vigilance against spies and wreckers.

Terror was used against all social and occupational groups--no one was spared. Terror directed against the kulaks, who were only marginally better off than their fellow villagers, served to intimidate the rest of the peasantry. Arresting and executing those engineers and specialists who resisted the imposition of unrealistic production targets frightened the remainder into working at breakneck speed to overfulfill the plan. Used against loyal Party members, terror combined with iron discipline to produce abject displays of public abasement and humiliation in the show trials of the 1930s.

The assassination of Sergei Kirov, popular Secretary of the Leningrad Party organization, by a disgruntled Party member in December 1934 touched off a wave of arrests. Although the evidence is not clear, the assassin may have been encouraged by the NKVD (secret police) to kill Kirov; he was twice arrested with a loaded pistol and maps of Kirov's routes, and each time was released with his weapon. Stalin affected dismay at the incident; in fact, it was a golden opportunity to initiate a purge of those deemed disloyal. Kirov's assassination touched off a wave of arrests in 1935, including those of the Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev. Robert C. Tucker in his book Stalin in Power refers to this period as the "quiet terror," the prelude to a full-blown assault on the population.

The Terror, or Purges (the Russian term is chistka, or "cleaning"), at its height from 1936 to 1938, was directed largely against officials in the upper levels of the Communist Party and government, members of the Comintern, leading cultural figures, officers in the Red Army, scientists, and others in prominent positions. Partly driven by Stalin's paranoia, the Purges had the effect of eliminating all possible opposition to him. The Old Bolsheviks--those who took part in the Revolution--submitted to the Party out of a strong sense of discipline, but Stalin was determined to ensure that no trace of possible resistance remained.

Zinoviev and Kamenev, two leading figures of the Revolution, were accused of plotting with Trotsky to murder Stalin, of having planned the attack on Kirov, and of being German agents. Pressured to admit their fictitious crimes at a staged trial in 1936, they were convicted and executed. The state prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky, railed against the defen dants, declaring that for justice to be served "the mad dogs must be shot." They were. Other prominent Bolshevik leaders came to a nasty end during this period. Mikhail Tomsky, head of the trade unions, committed suicide following an argument with Stalin. Minister of Heavy Industry Sergo Ordzhonikidze also killed himself. The Czech communist Karl Radek was sentenced to prison, where he was killed by inmates. In the last major purge trial, Alexei Rykov, Nikolai Bukharin, and nineteen others were accused of heading an anti-Soviet bloc of Rightists and Trotskyists; they were executed in 1938.

Marxist theory had predicted that with the triumph of communism, the state, which had only served as a repressive mechanism to maintain the ruling classes in power, would begin to wither away. In Stalinist Russia the reverse happened--the state grew and became extraordinarily powerful. The new Soviet Constitution of 1936 proclaimed that the gains of the Five Year Plans had established socialism in the USSR. However, Stalin argued that progress toward the final goal of full communism would intensify resistance by counterrevolutionary forces, and so increased oppression would be necessary to crush the opposition.

 

 

THE FIRST TOTALITARIAN SYSTEM?

The political system that evolved in the Soviet Union has often been called totalitarian. As the name implies, a totalitarian system seeks to exercise total control over the thoughts and behavior of the population. Political power is highly centralized in a single party headed by a dictator; all other political parties, interest groups, and social and cultural organizations are either banned or thoroughly dominated by the ruling party. The economy is tightly controlled by the government; business and agriculture are either owned outright by the state or run by government bureaucrats. Virtually all aspects of life, including those usually reserved to the private sphere, are politicized. Education and the mass media are controlled by the state, censorship is exercised, and the public is subject to government propaganda and attempts at behavior modification. Government actions are justified through a single ideology, and ideological competitors such as religion and other philosophies are harassed or destroyed. State-sponsored terror is employed to ensure complete obedience.

Stalin established the first totalitarian regime. Later totalitarian systems included China under Mao Zedong ( 1949-1976), North Korea under Kim Il-sung ( 1946-1995), and Cambodia under Pol Pot ( 1975-1978). Although none of the communist countries succeeded in exercising abso lute control over their people, they did create dictatorships that were far more repressive than most authoritarian systems. The peculiar nature of totalitarianism is captured in several excellent novels--Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, George Orwell 1984 and Animal Farm, and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Each of these depicts the horrors of life in a society where individual desires are completely subordinated to the goals of the state.

In Stalin's Soviet Union real political power was concentrated in the upper levels of the Communist Party--the Central Committee and the smaller Politburo--and the government ministries. Major decisions on foreign and domestic policies were made in the Politburo, with Stalin having the decisive voice. Government ministers were charged with devising plans and carrying out Party directives; they had very little chance to exercise initiative. Appointments to positions of responsibility--Party secretaries, government officials, military officers, heads of schools and universities, newspaper editors--were controlled through a list of names, the Nomenklatura, coordinated through the Party Secretariat in Moscow. The Nomenklatura was similar to a security background check--it ensured that candidates for a position were politically reliable. Those with questionable class backgrounds, religious believers, criminals, and those not wholeheartedly committed to the Soviet cause were screened out.

Was the Soviet Union under Stalin totalitarian? Scholars disagree. Certainly the state exercised greater control over its subjects than had any other of the world's great dictatorships, including Hitler's. But the Smolensk archives, captured by the Germans during World War II and then retrieved by the Americans, demonstrate that local Party and government officials often colluded to frustrate Moscow's, and Stalin's, orders. Constant pressures from the center to achieve unrealistic goals fueled a culture of deception, where the localities inflated production figures and assured Moscow that the assigned plans were always fulfilled (or even better, overfulfilled). Deception was very rational behavior in the Soviet Union, and it pervaded public life. This inherent logic of lies and deception poisoned social relations. When Soviet communism finally collapsed, Russian society lacked the trust necessary to build a truly democratic political culture.

 

 

FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND THE GREAT FATHERLAND WAR

The question of the Soviet Union's role in world affairs was problematic from the very beginning. First, the course of history did not unfold according to Marx's or Lenin's predictions, since no other industrialized nations experienced a socialist revolution. Second, the Bolsheviks' vitriolic condemnation of capitalist states, their repudiation of all foreign debts, and their avowed goal of fomenting world revolution ensured their international isolation. Third, the hostile approach of the Bolsheviks to capitalist Europe and America--their bitter propaganda campaigns, for example--generated hostility in turn from the West. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 1918 in which the new Bolshevik government readily gave up huge territories in exchange for peace with Germany demonstrated an ability to deal pragmatically with their enemies in order to preserve the nascent Soviet state, while continuing to promote the goal of revolution abroad.

Spurned by France, Britain, and the United States, Soviet Russia turned to the other pariah nation of post-World War IEurope, Germany. During a 1922 economic conference in Italy, the two countries signed the Rapallo Treaty, in which Russia obtained formal diplomatic recognition from Germany and expanded trade relations. More important, a secret agreement allowed Germany to construct arms factories and to train troops within the Soviet Union. This arrangement provided the Soviet Red Army with valuable technology and experience in joint military exercises while allowing Germany to circumvent the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles ( 1919) against rearming. This punitive treaty, with its reparations payments and other humiliating conditions, had been forced on Germany by the victorious allies and was greatly resented by Germans.

Soviet foreign policy in the 1920s evolved into a curious blend of revolutionary expansion and routine diplomacy. By the time of Lenin's death in 1924, the Soviet Union was no longer threatened by imminent attack. There were, however, potential threats to Soviet security, from Britain and France in the West, and from Japan in the East. Japan had withdrawn from the Soviet Far East in late 1922, but clearly had plans to expand onto the Asian mainland in its imperial quest. China at that time was extremely weak and fragmented, presenting an ideal opportunity for foreign intervention. Concern about Japan led Soviet leaders, through the Comintern, to help establish the Chinese Communist Party, in 1921. Mikhail Borodin, a Comintern official, reorganized the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) along Leninist lines and sponsored a coalition of the Kuomintang and Chinese Communists in 1924. Moscow reasoned that a strong, unified China could more easily withstand Japanese penetration. When Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Nationalists, turned on his communist allies and massacred some 10,000 of them in 1927, Soviet influence in China was severely curtailed. Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China in 1931 and threatened the Soviet border throughout the 1930s.

The United States refused to grant formal diplomatic recognition to the USSR until 1933, but there were substantial economic contacts during the 1920s. Ford Motor Company sold tractors, General Electric provided electrical equipment, Standard Oil and Sinclair signed contracts to develop Soviet energy reserves, and American cotton was exported to Soviet textile mills. Armand Hammer, the American entrepreneur, philanthropist and art collector, laid the foundations for his massive fortune by setting up factories to manufacture pencils. An astute businessman, Hammer realized that the revolutionary state would soon become heavily bureaucratic, and pencils would be in great demand. Although he was one of the world's richest capitalists, Armand Hammer had close ties with every Soviet leader from Lenin to Brezhnev.

Stalin was initially slow to perceive the threat presented by Hitler's rise in Germany. From 1927 to 1934 he was convinced that the Social Democrats (SPD), the moderate, Western-oriented left wing of German politics, were a greater enemy of communism than the growing National Socialist Party. Stalin chose to overlook Hitler's tirades against communism, preferring to view the fascist movement as a manifestation of capitalism that might result in war within Europe, but which would leave the Soviet Union untouched. Through the Comintern Stalin instructed the German Communist Party (KPD) to shun any form of cooperation with the SPD. By refusing to work with the German socialists, the communists helped destroy the Weimar democracy and facilitated Hitler's rise to chancellor in 1933.

By 1934 Hitler had destroyed the KPD and dissolved the military cooperation agreement signed at Rapallo. Stalin realized that Nazi Germany presented a real threat to the Soviet Union. In place of his earlier policy of semi-isolation, Stalin now initiated a collective security policy aimed at linking Soviet security to that of Europe. Maksim Litvinov, Commissar of Foreign Affairs, vigorously courted the former "capitalist aggressor" nations to contain Nazi expansion. The Soviet Union joined the League of Nations and in 1935 concluded mutual defense pacts with France and Czechoslovakia. Soviet diplomacy above all sought to prevent having the USSR dragged into a war before military and economic preparations had been completed.

By 1938 it was clear that the policy of collective security was seriously flawed. The West was unwilling to stand up to Hitler's aggressive actions--his move into the Rhineland ( 1936), his assistance to General Franco's fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the annexation of Austria ( 1938), and the move into Czech Sudetenland and the eventual occupation of all Czechoslovakia ( 1938-1939) had drawn no more than muted protests. In May 1939 Stalin replaced the Jewish Litvinov with his close confidant, Viacheslav Molotov, and in August of that year the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) was concluded. In addition to pledges not to attack the other party, the pact also included a secret protocol dividing up the territories that lay between the two countries. The Soviet Union would acquire the eastern third of Poland, the Baltic states, and Bessarabia (present-day Moldova); Germany could invade and occupy western Poland without fear of Soviet retaliation. The German attack on Poland one week later launched World War II.

The Non-Aggression Pact was signed to buy time for the Soviet Union, as was a neutrality treaty signed with Japan in April 1941. The first and second Five Year Plans had laid the foundations for an industrial economy, but collectivization and the Purges had greatly weakened Soviet capabilities. Stalin's Terror had decimated the top officers of the Red Army, leaving it unprepared to deal with a German invasion. Robert C. Tucker notes that of 101 members of the Soviet high command, 91 were arrested and more than 80 were shot. Some 3,000 naval commanders and 140 of 186 division commanders were executed during the Purges. After the Non-Aggression Pact was signed Stalin ordered the western military fortifications in Belorussia dismantled, possibly to convince Hitler that the Soviet Union posed no threat to Germany, but also to build fortifications further westward in the newly acquired territories.

The suspicious Soviet leader was so determined to avoid provoking the Germans that he consistently ignored warnings by his own and Western intelligence services that Hitler was planning to attack the USSR. Very likely, Stalin had hoped Germany would be exhausted from a protracted war with Britain and France. He did not envision Germany's rapid victories in Europe, nor could he believe Hitler would be so rash as to fight on two fronts simultaneously. When 3 million German troops invaded Soviet territory on June 22, 1941, the Red Army was completely unprepared. Stalin was so shocked he went into seclusion for nearly two weeks. Britain and France quickly joined the USSR as allies, and America entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The Great Fatherland War, as it patriotically came to be known, caused immense destruction. German forces quickly overran the western part of the USSR, including Ukraine and Belorussia, and advanced through Russia along a front stretching from Leningrad in the north, past Moscow, to Stalingrad and the Caucasus in the south. They eventually occupied some 400,000 square miles of Soviet territory with 65 million people, controlled much of the best agricultural land, and approached the outskirts of Moscow. Leningrad was cut off and besieged for nearly three years; some 900,000 inhabitants of the city died, mostly from cold and starvation. Altogether, about 20 million people perished from various causes, eighty times the number of Americans killed.

Most Soviet people fought fiercely in defense of their homeland. Military historian William Fuller (in Gregory Freeze, ed., Russia: A History) claims that the Soviet Union was fairly even with Germany in weapons and men at the start of the war; Germany's initial successes were due in large part to failures of leadership in the Soviet regime and to the vast destruction visited on Soviet society in the 1930s. It is a telling comment on Stalin's cruelties that in many parts of Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Baltics the Germans were welcomed as potential liberators. Peasants often met the advancing German troops with the traditional Slavic welcome of bread and salt. It is also estimated that about 1 million defected and served the Axis war machine in various capacities. However, the barbaric treatment of Slavs, classified as "subhumans" fit only for slave labor according to Hitler's racial scheme, quickly turned the population against the invaders. Jews and Communist Party officials fared the worst--they were shot, while others were herded into concentration camps. Nazi atrocities encouraged the Soviet people to fight doggedly, either in the regular forces or in partisan detachments, and this dogged resistance contributed to the eventual defeat of the Germans.

The magnitude of Soviet losses in World War II is difficult for Americans to comprehend. Virtually everyone lost at least one relative, and many lost entire families. Millions were uprooted, suffered from hunger and privation, and saw their homes destroyed. The country's national wealth had been reduced by approximately 30 percent. The war reinforced Soviet patriotism, magnified Stalin's personality cult, and strengthened his hold on power. It also reinforced the perception of vulnerability to outside aggression, making it easier for Soviet leaders to demand continued sacrifices in the interest of state security. Finally, Soviet victory in World War II added new territory to the USSR--the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Moldavia, and new areas in the west of the Belorussian and Ukrainian republics--and secured Eastern Europe as a communist buffer zone.

 

 

THE COLD WAR

World War II led to the formation of a new international order in which there were two dominant superpowers: the United States and the USSR. The Soviet Union was virtually exhausted by 1945; agricultural production had declined by two-thirds, industrial production was skewed toward military needs, and housing was in such short supply that 25 million people were homeless or living in makeshift shelters. On the plus side, the USSR had incorporated parts of the Russian empire lost after the Revolution--the Baltic states and Moldavia--and annexed East Prussia and new territory in Transcarpathia. The Soviet Union was now the second most powerful nation in the world, even after demobilizing the bulk of its 11 million man army.

There was no one reason why relations between the former allies deteriorated into the Cold War, a period of tension and competition between the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc and the American-led West. However, Stalin's renewed repression and isolation within the USSR, and the expansion of communism externally, reinforced the conviction in the West that the communists were indeed intent on world revolution. Over the next five years communist governments came to power in Eastern Europe, North Korea, and China. A strong communist movement threatened to take power in Greece, and large communist parties existed in France and Italy. Soviet forces occupied northern Iran until May 1946 and stayed in Austria until Nikita Khrushchev withdrew them in 1955. No longer an isolated pariah state, the Soviet Union was now the acknowledged leader and role model for a dozen communist countries. Marxist predictions that communism would replace capitalism finally seemed to be coming true, although the victories were secured by force of arms, or by revolutions in poor agricultural societies rather than developed industrial ones.

Of immediate importance for Stalin was the creation of a buffer zone of friendly communist states in Europe, in reality a Soviet empire. As the Red Army had pushed the Germans back through Eastern Europe it had occupied Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia. Since Stalin had promised to support "democracy" in Eastern Europe after the war, he directed communist parties to form coalitions, or "Na tional Fronts," with parties of the democratic left and center in each of these countries. Over the next three years the communist parties, with Soviet support, gradually discredited or destroyed their coalition partners and established communist dictatorships. Even in those countries where support for communism was strong, as in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, Stalin insisted on replication of the Soviet model and complete subordination to Moscow.

Thorough control was difficult to achieve, however, when communist forces had attained power without direct Soviet assistance, as occurred in Yugoslavia, Albania, and China. In Yugoslavia, communist partisans under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito fought the Germans, and by war's end had secured a dominant position in their country and in neighboring Albania. At first the Yugoslav communists adamantly proclaimed their loyalty to Moscow. Soviet attempts to bind Yugoslavia into a web of controls, through the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform, the successor to the Comintern) and the Soviet secret police, backfired. In 1948 Tito announced that Yugoslavia would quit the Cominform and pursue its own path toward socialism, infuriating Stalin, who correctly perceived it as a challenge to Soviet leadership of world communism.

Following the conquest of Berlin and the division of Germany into four occupation zones by the Allies, Soviet-occupied East Berlin and East Germany were taken over by the German Communist Party, renamed the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany). Stalin was keen to keep Germany divided and weak. When in 1948 the United States introduced a currency reform in the western sectors without consulting the USSR, Stalin ordered Berlin, located over 100 miles inside the eastern sector, blockaded. The United States and Britain responded with an elevenmonth airlift of supplies to the beleaguered city. Stalin finally lifted the blockade in May 1949, but the crisis resulted in the formation of separate East and West German states, solidifying indefinitely the postwar division. The Western allies also created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 as a means of containing Soviet aggression in Europe.

Stalin's actions at the wartime conferences in Teheran, Potsdam, and Yalta were directed toward the complete destruction of Germany and the creation of a protective buffer zone between the Soviet Union and Western Europe. A Communist Eastern Europe where Soviet troops were deployed, where the communist parties and security forces were thoroughly penetrated by and responsible to Soviet Party and secret police organs, and where Western Europe and the United States were denied any influ ence constituted just such a zone. Winston Churchill in his 1946 speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, aptly described this dividing line between communist East and democratic West. "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent."

Certainly one factor contributing to the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States was the refusal of the latter to share the secrets of the atomic bomb. Both countries had been working on this superweapon throughout the war, but America's technological edge proved superior. When President Truman approved the August 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he apparently hoped that this destructive weapon would encourage Stalin to act more cautiously. However, Stalin could not tolerate an American nuclear monopoly, and ordered his scientists (and spies) to build a Soviet weapon with all dispatch. The first Soviet atomic (fission) bomb was successfully tested in 1949; a thermonuclear device was exploded in 1953.

In the Far East, Stalin's goals included regaining territory lost to Japan in the Russo-Japanese War (southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands), establishing a presence in northern China and on the Korean peninsula, and limiting the American presence in the region. Soviet forces had not fought Japan during the war, but did move very quickly into northern China and the northern part of the Korean peninsula in the few weeks before Japan's surrender in August 1945. While the United States willingly divided Korea into two zones of occupation along the 38th parallel, Stalin's attempt to secure a foothold in Japan was successfully resisted by General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman. However, Soviet troops did manage to regain control of southern Sakhalin, and occupied the entire chain of the Kuril Islands, including the four southernmost islands, which had never been under Russian control. Continued occupation of these Northern Territories, as the Japanese call them, poisoned relations with Japan throughout the rest of the Soviet period. As late as 1999 Russia and Japan had still not reached a territorial settlement, and so had not signed a peace treaty formally ending the state of war between them.

As in Eastern Europe, Soviet occupying forces backed a pliant communist, Kim Il-sung, and helped his political faction consolidate power in the North. In June 1950 Kim convinced a reluctant Stalin to support his invasion of U.S.-backed South Korea. Kim also managed to gain support from Mao Zedong and the new communist government established in the People's Republic of China in 1949. In June 1950 North Korean orces struck southward across the 38th parallel, thus starting the Korean War (1950-1953). Stalin cautiously supported North Korea with supplies, pilots, and military advisors. It was not until his death that the stalemate on the Korean peninsula was broken and a peace agreement was negotiated.

Moscow did not seem very confident of a communist victory in China in the immediate postwar period, and signed a treaty of friendship and alliance with Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang government in August 1945. By 1947 the Chinese communists under Mao were scoring major successes against the Nationalists; Chiang's forces were driven off the mainland and onto the island of Taiwan, and the People's Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1, 1949. Although they had provided only minimal support to the Chinese communists during the civil war, the Soviets extended warm wishes to Mao and invited him to Moscow for a two-month conference in 1950, during which a mutual assistance treaty was signed. But personal relations between Stalin and Mao were not cordial, and the interests of these two large communist nations were incompatible. Communism was not a monolithic bloc as so many in the West thought, and the communist world would soon fracture along the Sino-Soviet axis.

 

 

 

STALIN'S FINAL YEARS

Soviet priorities after the war included rebuilding the industrial base and restoring strict controls over society. After years of sacrifice, many were hoping for some easing of the repressions of the 1930s, some reward for their loyal defense of the motherland. But they would be disappointed. True, political terror was sporadic rather than pervasive, and the material well-being of the population was restored to prewar levels within a few years. But private agricultural production, tolerated as a necessity during the war, came under renewed attack as resources were drained from the countryside to finance industry. Tens of thousands of collective farms had disintegrated under the German onslaught; now the Soviet state set about rebuilding the kolkhozes and forcing peasants to deliver grain to the cities. Renewed pressure on the countryside led once again to famine. The young and able left the countryside for the cities, further aggravating the poverty of Russia's rural areas.

Stalin was determined to punish all those suspected of not being totally loyal to the motherland. Those who had collaborated with the Germans either fled to the West or were shot. Prisoners captured by the Germans were automatically suspect. If they survived the German concentration camps, then they must have been collaborators, since the Germans treated POWs so cruelly. By the same twisted reasoning, escapees must have been working with their captors, given German efficiency. Sadly, many soldiers were repatriated from German POW camps to Soviet concentration camps.

Stalin also suspected the loyalty of national minorities within the former occupied territories. In 1937, concerned that they might cooperate with the Japanese, he ordered hundreds of thousands of Koreans living in the Soviet Far East rounded up and deported to Central Asia. During and after the war many of the small nations of southern Russia and the Caucasus were brutally resettled in the vast expanses of Siberia or Kazakhstan. These deported peoples included Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans, for example--as well as nationalists from the newly annexed Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. In his memoirs, General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev claims that Stalin contemplated deporting the entire Ukrainian nation of 40 million, but the logistics of moving so many people were simply unmanageable!

As the Cold War heated up, paranoia and isolationism reached new heights in the USSR. One of Stalin's top lieutenants, Andrei Zhdanov, party boss of Leningrad and cultural watchdog, initiated a campaign against all forms of "cosmopolitanism" in 1947. Cosmopolitanism was a code word for cultural influences that were not purely Russian, particularly those which were Jewish. Zhdanov publicly attacked the poet Anna Akhmatova and satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko for not publishing idealized, moral works in the vein of socialist realism. The zhdanovshchina, as it was called, exercised a stifling influence over the arts, social sciences, and even natural sciences. In biology, for example, Western genetics was rejected in favor of the quack theories of Trofim Lysenko, who claimed that characteristics acquired from the environment could then be transmitted to succeeding generations. Lysenko used his highlevel connections to ruin his critics and to establish himself as dean of the Soviet scientific establishment. His ideas exercised a pernicious influence on Soviet science and agriculture well into the Khrushchev era.

Soviet culture during Stalin's final years suffered greatly from the repressive atmosphere of thezhdanovshchina. Many of the best writers and artists had already fled to the West years before: the painter Marc Chagall and novelist Vladimir Nabokov are two notable examples. The late Stalin era was even more stultifying than the prewar USSR. Socialist realism sacrificed creativity for ideology, as painters churned out scenes of construction sites, idyllic collective farm life, heroic military battles, and of course scores of Lenins and Stalins. In music, talented composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, who had written the delightful children's score Peter and the Wolf in 1936, were accused of creating disharmonious music that was not appreciated by the working masses. The brilliant poet and novelist Boris Pasternak published mostly translations during the Stalin period; his masterpiece Dr. Zhivago, described by the author as "a spiritual history of the Russian revolution," was not published until 1957, and even then was available only to readers in the West.

Stalin's cult of personality rose to new heights during this period. The victory over Germany had confirmed his absolute power. Portraits, statues, and busts of the supreme leader adorned town squares, schools, offices, and many homes. Soviet newspapers such as Pravda andIzvestiia declared him "Friend and Teacher of All Toilers," the "Greatest Genius in History," and other absurdities; they carried stories glorifying Stalin for his political leadership, philosophical contributions, literary talents, even his (nonexistent) expertise in linguistics, agronomy, and art. Academic writings would cite Stalin's works as the ultimate authority on every topic. The once minor Bolshevik functionary who, as the Russian General Dmitrii Volkogonov explains in his biography, "had no skills or profession, unless being a half-baked priest can be considered a profession," became a godlike omnipotent figure in the last years of his life.

Constant public adulation did little to assuage Stalin's paranoia. The great dictator secluded himself in the Kremlin or various palatial retreats, surrounded by loyal retainers and under tight security. He seldom appeared in public, and in later years traveled abroad only for the wartime conferences in Teheran ( 1943) and Potsdam ( 1945). Stalin worked late into the night, often summoning officials or experts for late-night Kremlin conversations. All "suggestions" conveyed at such meetings were understood to be orders and were carried out without question.

Soviet life in the late Stalin era was dreary, poor, and insulated from the rest of the world. Those few foreigners who were allowed entry were closely watched by the secret police. Even accidental contact with foreigners was cause for suspicion; marrying one was strictly forbidden. Soviet propaganda depicted life in the United States and other capitalist countries as wretched while exalting Russian and Soviet accomplishments as the greatest in history. As Isaac Deutscher expressed it in his biography of Stalin, "Megalomania and xenophobia were to cure the people of their sense of inferiority, render them immune to those attractions of the western culture by which generations of the intelligentsia had been spellbound, protect them against the demoralizing impact of American wealth, and harden them for the trials of the Cold War and, if need be, for armed conflict."

Political control at this time was exercised through the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), headed by Lavrentii Beria, a Georgian and close friend of Stalin. Beria, who had succeeded Nicholas Yezhov as head of the NKVD in 1938, was a complete moral degenerate. In Moscow, as in Tbilisi, where he had served as head of the Transcaucasian secret police, Beria used his unlimited power to abduct young girls off the streets and rape them. Fearful that Beria would use the MVD's vast power to assume the top position, his colleagues quickly engineered his arrest and execution immediately after Stalin's death.

Toward the end of Stalin's life there were indications that he was laying the groundwork for a new purge. At the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 1952 a new, greatly enlarged Central Committee was elected; in addition, the Politburo was renamed the Presidium and was doubled in size. Stalin was very possibly getting ready to dismiss those Party veterans who in the 1930s had vaulted into the top ranks over the bodies of the Old Bolsheviks. In another ominous development, in January 1953 nine high-level Kremlin doctors were accused of plotting to use medicine to assassinate Soviet military leaders. This fabrication, termed the Doctors' Plot, reflected a growing anti-semitism, since many of the doctors had Jewish surnames. Mercifully, the "Father of the Peoples" died before the next round of bloodletting got under way.

Stalin's death on March 5, 1953, at age seventy-three shocked a nation that, perhaps, had come to believe the propaganda that its god-leader was truly omnipotent. He suffered two strokes within a week, and his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, recalled that leeches were used in the final hours to treat his illness. Beria clearly expected to succeed the great dictator, but the fear he inspired in other Presidium members led to his arrest and execution. A massive public funeral was held for Stalin, with thirty-gun salutes and thousands of mourners filing past the bier. Afterward, Stalin's body was preserved and his remains interred next to those of Lenin in the mausoleum on Red Square.

With Stalin and Beria gone, the most repressive aspects of Soviet rule abated. Those accused in the Doctors' Plot were released. Senior Party leaders--Nikita Khrushchev, Georgii Malenkov, Nikolai Bulganin, Anastas Mikoyan, Kliment Voroshilov, and Lazar Kaganovich--now spared a second purge, reduced the Presidium from twenty-five to ten and agreed to rule the Soviet Union collectively. None of Stalin's successors concentrated in their hands the absolute power he had acquired; they did not resort to terror as he had, nor did they seek to remake society. But for the next three decades they preserved the essentials of the Stalinist system--the single-party monopoly of political power, socialized industry and collective agriculture, censorship and indoctrination. The camps would eventually disgorge many of their political prisoners, but they were not closed down. Stalinism proved much more durable than Stalin himself.

 

 

 

 


CHARLES E. ZIEGLER is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisville. He is the author of Foreign Policy and East Asia ( 1993), Environmental Policy in the USSR ( 1987), and dozens of scholarly articles and book chapters.