06 — the rise of Stalin

Study Overview

  1. The state of the USSR in 1924: the power struggle after Lenin’s death, and Stalin’s victory
  2. Economic policies: collectivisation and the Five Year Plans
  3. State control: the purges and the cult of personality
  4. Daily life in Stalin’s USSR
  5. The Soviet experience of WW2, and how it shaped the USSR after the war

The State of the USSR in 1924 and Stalin’s Victory

In this unit:

  1. A Brave New World? (The state of the USSR by 1924)
  2. What’s got the Reds all riled up? (Issues left unresolved after Lenin’s death)
  3. Filling Lenin’s shoes (The contenders for Lenin’s position)
  4. From Arch Mediocrity to Arch Nemesis (Stalin’s victory in the power struggle)

Questions to consider

  1. How did the situation of the USSR in 1924 mould Stalin’s later plans for the country?
  2. How and why did Stalin emerge victorious in the power struggle of 1924-29? What do you think was his key strength / advantage?
  3. Did developments in the USSR during this early period set precedents for later Soviet policy? Explain your answer.

Warmup In 1924, the vast majority of the population of the Soviet Union looked something like this. Infer what the USSR was like socially and politically. What implications would this have for leaders of the USSR? (Think about what this man’s job probably was and the implications of that, etc)

A Brave New World?

  • USSR — Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the largest state in the world stretching from Ukraine to just off the coast of Alaska
    • The government and the people are referred to as Soviet (Soviet govt, Soviet people), or sometimes as the Soviets 
    • Remember that the USSR consisted of several regions / republics, not just Russia
  • The USSR was born in 1922: in 1917 the Russian Empire was consumed by communist (Bolshevik) revolution (October Revolution), and only after a brutal civil war did the Bolsheviks emerge victorious in 1923, uniting their territories into the new USSR
    • The Bolsheviks were led by Lenin, who was determined to apply Marxist policies to create the world’s first communist society
    • The experience of the Russian Civil War moulded Lenin’s vision for the USSR: he was deeply distrustful of foreign countries, since many (including Britain, France, and the USA) had intervened in the RCW to try to strangle the new communist regime in the crib. As a devoted Marxist, Lenin also saw them as enemies, since they followed the capitalist system, and were hostile to communist ideas

A Bolshevik (communist) poster, 1919. The dogs represent anti-communist (White) generals who fought the Bolsheviks (Reds) in the RCW. Note the men in the background and the flags on their hats. What is the main message of the poster? Does it affirm or contradict Lenin’s worldview?
  • War Communism and NEP:
    • During the RCW, the Bolsheviks had faced food shortages, and so Lenin put in place a policy of War Communism: grain was seized from the peasants in order to keep the industrial workers (who produced materiel) and the soldiers fed; private property was also abolished, and the entire economy was placed under government control. War Communism was ferociously enforced, and even resulted in millions of starvation deaths (1921 famine), but it helped the Bolsheviks win the RCW
    • During the RCW, Lenin had also announced a 1921 ban on factions; there would be no dissenting opinions within the Party, no organised criticism of the head of the USSR — not while the Bolsheviks were fighting a war
    • By 1921 communist victory was all but assured, but by now Russia was in ruins, partly because of the fighting and partly because of WC. So Lenin replaced it with the New Economic Policy: this relaxed some of WC’s stricter measures (eg no more grain requisitions), and moreover allowed for some private ownership, which greatly helped the peasants. The NEP was welcomed by some Bolsheviks (eg Bukharin), though others (esp Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev) saw it as a betrayal of communist ideas. Lenin himself recognised this, and tried to reassure them that ‘we are taking one step backward now so that we can take two steps forward later’. This would lay up trouble for the future
  • And so in 1924 the USSR was in a precarious position: she was still recovering from a devastating civil war and surrounded by hostile neighbours, and its leadership was divided regarding economic policy. Meanwhile Lenin was the unquestioned head of the Communist Party, which now ruled the USSR as a single-party state; the Communist Party’s authority branched into the government and the judiciary — there was no area of life in the USSR that was outside of its rule 
    • This authority was enforced by the Cheka (secret police), who could arrest enemies of the state, torture and execute them, or even throw them into forced labour camps (later known as the Gulag). During the RCW, the Cheka had carried out the Red Terror on Lenin’s orders: this involved hunting down and killing suspected anti-communists (many of them peasants and industrial workers who simply wouldn’t put up with the communists’ demands anymore), and resulted in some 100,000 deaths
“To overcome our enemies we must have our own socialist militarism. We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia’s population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.”
—Grigory Zinoviev, 1918, on the Red Terror
  • While on paper the state (the govt) and the Party were two separate entities, in reality the Party was preeminent. The top state organ was the Council of People’s Commissars, while the top Party organ was the Central Committee, but both had similar posts (sometimes held by the same official), and all officials in both were Party members — in this way the Party swallowed up the state
    • Though on paper the Central Committee was the top Party organ, in reality the Secretariat ran the Party. Thus the head of the Secretariat, the General Secretary, could become the de facto head of the Party, and from there, head of the USSR

After the failure of the 1905 Russian Revolution, some Bolsheviks felt that a slower approach to revolution was needed. In response, Lenin wrote: “We would be deceiving both ourselves and the people if we concealed from the masses the necessity of a desperate, bloody war of extermination, as the immediate task of the coming revolutionary action.”
Using this source and your own knowledge, was this thinking consistent with Lenin’s later actions?

What’s got the Reds all Riled up?

Things got a lot more precarious when Lenin died in January 1924, after a long period of ill health. Now the Soviet leadership was faced with three major issues:

Who should take over from Lenin? 
One person or a committee? If one person, who? It didn’t help that Lenin did not name a clear successor — in fact he seemed quite critical of all the top officials in the Politburo (the top policy-making body of the Communist Party). This made it hard for anyone to agree on who should succeed Lenin. This power vacuum almost guaranteed a power struggle after his death
Should the USSR continue with the NEP, or resume its Marxist economic path?The NEP was helping the USSR recover, but it was slow going, especially in terms of industrialisation; and if the USSR was surrounded by hostile neighbours, wouldn’t rapid industrialisation be wiser? Some Politburo members supported the NEP (eg Stalin and Bukharin) while others thought it was time to abandon it and prepare for rapid industrialisation (eg Trotsky). This also exacerbated conflict among the Soviet leadership (Worth noting that the NEP had been Lenin’s idea all along!)

How should the USSR interact with the outside world?
In a world of hostile, capitalist enemies, should the USSR focus on Worldwide Revolution (spreading communism worldwide as according to Marxism) or on Socialism in One Country (building up the USSR first before thinking of worldwide revolution)? Some Politburo members favoured Worldwide Revolution (eg Trotsky) while many others, still weary from the RCW, favoured Socialism in One Country (eg Stalin). Again this only exacerbated conflict among the Soviet leadership

The scene was now set for a messy power struggle to fill the vacuum left by Lenin’s death.

Filling Lenin’s Shoes

On the face of it, the Politburo wanted to avoid factionalism, preserving unity and providing stable, collective leadership for the USSR, especially now that Lenin was dead. Below the surface however, Politburo members were already scrambling to seize power, trying to outmanoeuvre each other and buy each other’s support. While on paper there seemed to be multiple contenders for leadership of the Communist Party, in reality there were only two realistic choices.

RykovHad actually succeeded Lenin in several key government positions… …but he was not widely accepted as Lenin’s actual successor in the Party (partly because he had put heavy taxes on vodka)
KamenevClose friend of Lenin, and head of the Moscow Communist Party (strong power base giving him influence and votes)…   …but was seen as weak-willed, and had actually opposed the 1917 October Revolution during its early stages 
ZinovievEven closer friend of Lenin, and head of the Leningrad Communist Party… …but was seen by Politburo members as arrogant and decadent, and had also opposed the 1917 October Revolution during its beginning
Bukharin Popular within the Party for his expertise in economic theory… …but also seen as weak-willed, and lacked a strong power base; his strong support for the NEP also put him at odds with several key Politburo members (including Kamenev and Zinoviev), though this did make him an ally of Stalin (at least for the time being) 
The first of the only two actually serious contenders was Leon Trotsky.

On one hand… 

– Very intelligent: a brilliant thinker, theorist, and public speaker

– Long and close working relationship with Lenin, had become his right hand man
– A hero of the 1917 October Revolution, and of the RCW
– Popular with the Red Army, which he had moulded and led during the RCW

– Held top political and military positions, giving him a very strong power base 
But on the other hand… 

– Intelligence and talent made his colleagues jealous; it didn’t help that he often seemed aloof, arrogant, and abrasive; as Red Army commander he was no stranger to making brutal decisions

– In his testament, Lenin criticised him for being too arrogant

– As a Jew, he was also the target of antisemitic suspicion and hatred
– He seriously underestimated Stalin as a threat to his position (until it was too late), and did nothing to match Stalin’s endless political manoeuvring
– His stances made him enemies: he supported Worldwide Revolution at a time when the war-weary USSR was still recovering from the RCW; he opposed the NEP at a time when it was genuinely popular with the common people; and he only joined the Bolsheviks in 1917, and before that had opposed them

– His command of the Red Army made him even more a target of suspicion

– He was conspicuously absent at Lenin’s funeral — the reasons are unclear, but it made him appear very disrespectful toward Lenin 
The second of the only two actually serious contenders was Joseph Stalin.

On one hand… 

– Tough, hard-working, and utterly ruthless when he wanted to be

– Shrewdly and carefully cultivated image — was seen as earnest, relatable, and reliable (in contrast to Trotsky, who was seen as snobbish and unpleasant)

– Also had a close working relationship with Lenin (though this soured after 1923)
– He read out the eulogy at Lenin’s funeral in 1924, giving the (misleading) impression that he was still one of Lenin’s favourites
– Clever political manoeuvring skills, knew exactly how to use the Party’s machinery to strengthen his political position

– Took on many dull administrative posts in the Party which granted him a lot of influence and access to information (ie he could spy on his opponents); the most important of these was General Secretary (1922 onward), which gave him patronage powers
– …so that during the Lenin Enrolment (1923-25), new Communist Party members would basically have to become supporters of Stalin if they wanted to join the Party; this gave him enormous influence within the Party, and he could often rely on these yes-men to outvote his opponents

– His stances (which may or may not have been earnestly held) won him support in the Party: he supported Socialism in One Country and the NEP, both generally popular policies (again unlike Trotsky, who opposed both)
But on the other hand… 

– His toughness could make him rude or even downright cruel; his willingness to use violence shocked even some of his supporters, while his extreme rudeness toward Lenin’s wife in 1923 caused him to fall out of favour with Lenin…
– …which resulted in severe censure of Stalin in Lenin’s testament which was read out to the Central Committee. The testament called for Stalin’s resignation as General Secretary, criticised his extreme rudeness, and raised concerns about his ambitiousness and the amount of influence and authority he had amassed for himself 

– Despite his strong power base within the Party, he still lacked the flair and charisma of other top Politburo members (eg Trotsky and Bukharin); in fact he had a reputation for being quite dull and boring, and not very intelligent

– Unlike Trotsky he played no notable roles in the October Revolution and the RCW

– As a Georgian he was seen as a bit of a bumpkin by many Party members (though in their eyes that was still better than being Jewish like Trotsky)

Arch Mediocrity to Arch Nemesis

Shortly after Lenin’s death, and despite his wishes, the Party was seriously divided by factionalism: 

The left wing (dominated by Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev) wanted to abandon the NEP in favour of rapid industrialisationThe right wing (dominated by Bukharin) wanted to continue the NEP, pursue slow industrialisation, and focus on Socialism in One Country

Stalin seemed to float somewhere in the middle, wanting to keep the NEP but also favouring quick industrialisation (but not as quick as the left wanted) — it’s unclear if his moderate position was earnest or pragmatic. He would spend the next five years outmanoeuvring each of his opponents, until he emerged as paramount leader by 1929.

Very quickly the left-right struggle devolved into a struggle of personalities; in this situation Trotsky became the first casualty, his popularity and talent making him an obvious target. Stalin shrewdly made use of this, isolating Trotsky and destroying him:

  1. Trotsky failed to attend Lenin’s funeral, casting doubt on his closeness with Lenin and tarnishing his reputation — this may well have been engineered by Stalin, who arranged for himself to read Lenin’s eulogy
  2. Lenin’s testament contained criticisms of most of the top Politburo officials, but also contained some praise for Trotsky, and strong censure of Stalin. Kamenev and Zinoviev, fearing Trotsky more than Stalin, persuaded the Central Committee to suppress the testament.
    This aligned Kamenev and Zinoviev with Stalin and Bukharin, salvaged Stalin’s reputation, and struck a serious blow against Trotsky (by ruining his chances at becoming Lenin’s successor, and by preserving his arch-rival)
  3. Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Stalin quickly formed an (unofficial) alliance against Trotsky, nevermind the fact that Kamenev and Zinoviev actually agreed with Trotsky on opposing the NEP. The two then worked effectively to weaken Trotsky’s position, while Stalin watched and waited
  4. The final blow came at the 1924 Thirteenth Party Congress: when Trotsky reaffirmed his support for rapid industrialisation, as well as criticising the lack of democracy within the Party, he lost support — the NEP was still broadly popular, and by criticising the undemocratic nature of the Party he appeared disrespectful to Lenin, while threatening the positions of Party members who had gained influence precisely because of this undemocratic nature. In any case Stalin mobilised his yes-men to outvote Trotsky’s ideas. In 1925 he was removed as head of the Red Army, and was never again a serious contender 
  5. Stalin now aligned himself further with Bukharin, consolidating his support: by supporting the NEP he could appear to have in mind the interests of rank-and-file Party members, while also showcasing his loyalty to Lenin’s ideas; by reaffirming Socialism in One Country he could appear to have the interests of the country in mind (in contrast to Trotsky). Bukharin meanwhile used his control of the media to support Stalin.
    Kamenev and Zinoviev, on the other hand, seriously blundered, performing a volte-face and realigning themselves with Trotsky to form the United Opposition (was this a miscalculated manoeuvre against Stalin, or an earnest gesture?). All three now reaffirmed their desire to abandon the NEP and pursue both rapid industrialisation and Worldwide Revolution. But this only made them lose credibility and respect
  6. And so Stalin, at the 1927 Fifteenth Party Congress (packed with his yes-men), destroyed the United Opposition, which was formally accused of factionalism. By the end of the Congress, Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev had been expelled from the Party. Trotsky was exiled in 1929 (and assassinated in Mexico in 1940); Zinoviev and Kamenev were readmitted into the Party in 1928 after confessing their wrongs, though they never regained their former influence. Now only Stalin and Bukharin remained 
  7. In 1928, Stalin made his move against Bukharin. By now the NEP was increasingly seen as ineffective, and had lost much of its support; the right wing’s (and Bukharin’s) position was looking increasingly tenuous. Stalin now performed his own volte-face, calling for the abandonment of the NEP in favour of rapid industrialisation, mobilising all of his supporters at every Party meeting. Bukharin and the right wing could not hope to match Stalin’s level of support, and were outvoted at every step. In 1929 Bukharin was expelled from the Politburo. Stalin’s domination of the Party leadership (and the USSR) was now unchallenged

Review: How was Stalin able to seize power by 1929?

Shrewd choice of policies Whether earnestly or pragmatically, Stalin consistently backed the most popular policies: he supported the NEP while it was popular, and turned against it in 1928 when it stopped being popular; and he consistently supported Socialism in One Country, a patriotic idea that appealed to the war-weary Soviet peoplePolitical manoeuvring skills Stalin combined his uncanny sense of timing, carefully cultivated image, powerful political support base, shrewd reading of popular opinion, and utter ruthlessness toward both rivals and allies to climb to the top. His quick isolation and destruction of Trotsky was a masterclass in political manoeuvring
Mastery of Party machinery Stalin recognised the importance of such dull posts as General Secretary, and used these to build his support base: he shrewdly used the Lenin Enrolment to fill the Party with his yes-men, and could consistently call on them to outvote and silence his opponentsRivals’ mistakes All of Stalin’s rivals made serious blunders — most seriously they failed to recognise him as a threat until it was too late. Most were too preoccupied with self- interested infighting to unite against him, eg suppressing Lenin’s testament, and Trotsky’s downfall at the Thirteenth Party Congress

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