Assessment of Stalin’s Rule of Russia During 1924-1939

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Stalin’s rule of Russia was a very successful rule that came with the sacrifice of many people and a fear factor created by Stalin. He was able to outwit and overcome his opponents to achieve the control of Russia. Once seated as the leader he was able to maintain his position due to his control of the state and fear factor created by him and his secret police force.

Lenin's Testament, with its warning against Stalin and suggestion that he be removed from leadership, was read at the next Central Committee meeting. This was a critical moment: if his rivals had demanded compliance with the testament at this point, Stalin would not have survived their attacks--his support base was not yet large enough. However, Trotsky kept silent and Stalin's allies, Kamenev and Zinoviev, came to his defense; Stalin retained his post as General Secretary. The following year, 1924, marks the beginning of Stalin's rise to power. By 1930, Stalin would overshadow his rivals, and by 1940 outlive them. His amazing success can be attributed to a combination of his own political genius and the mistakes that his rivals persisted in making. Gifted ideologues though they were, his opponents were primarily men of theory rather than men of action. Stalin, meanwhile, never enjoyed a deep understanding of Marxist theory, and was always willing to twist it to his advantage, a habit that proved useful in the years ahead, as he repeatedly out- intrigued his supposed "comrades" within the party. By the time of the next Party Congress, in October of 1926, Zinoviev and Kamenev had been removed from the Politburo, and Stalin felt secure enough in his power to urge the Party's official repudiation of their views as "anti-Leninist." Trotsky resisted, and in 1927 he was expelled from the party and exiled to Central Asia; Zinoviev and Kamenev, defeated, begged for clemency, which the Politburo granted. Stalin was triumphant--now, even his ally in this struggle, Bukharin, grew nervous, as he realized that Stalin's power in the Party now overshadowed even his own influence.

Having defeated Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev, he now readmitted the latter two into the Party and began to co-opt their ideas, pushing for immediate collectivization of land and rapid, state-controlled industrialization. Earlier, in February of that year, Trotsky, who had continued political activity in the Russian east, was expelled from the Soviet Union. With Stalin's strongest adversaries thus humbled or eliminated, he stood alone atop the pyramid of Soviet power. Even as he was tightening his hold on the Politburo, Stalin had pushed his economic program into action. This Five-Year Plan, as it was called set ambitious economic goals for the U.S.S.R., to be implemented by a central agency called the Gosplan, which would oversee a rapid industrialization process that was intended to bring the Soviet Union toward economic parity with Western Europe and the United States--all without any foreign aid. The limited market economy that had been allowed to exist in rural areas was, quite literally, liquidated. In its place, Stalin imposed a vast and complex planned economy, in which every decision would be made centrally, rather than individually. Initially, the Five-Year Plan only called for collectivizing about one-fifth of the rural farm population, but in 1929 Stalin abruptly decided on immediate collectivization on an unprecedented scale. In theory, this meant that individual farm ownership would be abolished, and peasants would be consolidated into collective farms, usually averaging three to five thousand acres in size. In practice, the program was an excuse for Marxist class war in rural areas, as the peasantry naturally resisted the government's attempts to make them leave their farms, and the government, in response, unleashed deadly force against the wealthy kulaks, the rich peasants who were, according to Stalin's propaganda, exploiting everyone else. It was therefore almost impossible for Soviet officials to separate "exploiting peasants" from "exploited peasants." But they were bound by ideology--or rather, Stalin was bound by ideology, and it was his iron will that drove the collectivization process. Beginning with his declaration, in December 1929, that the Soviet Union needed to achieve "the liquidation of the kulaks as a class," the entire apparatus of the newly Stalinist state was directed against the recalcitrant peasantry.

The results, to put it mildly, were catastrophic. Fifteen million peasants were uprooted from their homes and marched at gunpoint across the country into inhospitable regions, where they were expected to farm--or, more realistically, expected to die. In early 1930, the policy had caused so much chaos that Stalin was forced to pull back, and for a time he allowed some peasants to leave the collective farms. And over the next two years, the brief retreat came to an end, and collectivization went forward again, with even greater zeal. Hundreds of thousands were shot, and a terrible famine swept over the country, which Stalin allowed to rage unchecked, viewing it as another weapon against the "kulak". Between four and five million people died in the Ukraine alone, and another two to three million in the rest of Russia--while the Soviet Union, under Stalin's direction, was exporting 1.7 million tons of grain, and keeping millions of tons in state "reserves" in case of war. Meanwhile, the "class struggle" went forward in other areas as well--churches were destroyed, priests arrested, and a vast propaganda campaign conducted against organized religion; and at the same time, supposedly "bourgeois" influences were removed from academia, the army, and even engineering, leaving the Soviet Union bereft of talented men. But the campaign against the "kulaks" was the greatest and most pervasive of Stalin's terrors during this era. In scope, ferocity, and cruelty, it warrants comparison to Hitler's Holocaust. The apparatus of death was cruder than the tightly regimented German system, but the toll was just as high, and the ideological fervour bore a striking resemblance to Nazism's strident anti-Semitism. The kulak, the "enemy of the people", was treated as subhuman and demonized just as thoroughly as Germany's Jews. The vast system of labour camps that sprang into being in the early 1930s the "gulag" bears comparison to the Nazi concentration camps.
The Second Five-Year Plan (from January 1933 to December 1937) also gave priority to heavy industry. One of the weaknesses revealed during the First Five-Year Plan was that of the Soviet infrastructure, especially roads, railways, and canals. Consequently, the second plan also provided for reconstruction and double tracking of the principal lines, starting with the Trans-Siberian Railway. The widening of old canals and the construction of new ones like the Moscow-Volga canal was another vital task assigned to the new plan. By 1933 the altered international position of the USSR resulting from Hitler’s seizure of power was reflected in a rapid expansion of armament production. The armed forces were gradually reshaped into an increasingly professional, modern fighting machine, comparable to those of other great powers. Between 1933 and 1936, the size of the Red Army tripled, from 562,000 to 1.5 million, exceeding the size of the imperial army in 1913. As with the First Five-Year Plan, the second was also officially declared completed nine months ahead of time, in 1937. Again, however, not all of its goals were achieved. Among the items that surpassed their estimated targets were steel and the automotive industry, created practically from scratch. Tanks and armoured cars were given priority over civilian vehicles. The most striking failure was consumer goods production. The first two five-year plans increased the industrial capacity of the USSR dramatically in all major fields steel, coal, and electric power, and created new manufacturing sectors indispensable to any great power automobiles, aviation, chemicals, and plastics. Consequently, the first two five-year plans laid the foundation of the industrial might of the Soviet Union, especially in the military field. Industrial expansion and often forcible relocation involved a massive shift of sometimes unwilling citizens, mostly from the countryside to the cities. Between 1926 and 1939 the overall percentage of urban dwellers nearly doubled, from 18 to 33 percent. During the first two five-year plans nearly twelve million people moved from the countryside to the cities. History had rarely seen migrations on such a scale. Most of the migrants left the countryside during the first five-year plan as a result of the collectivization and the policy of “liquidation of the kulak as a class.” The dramatic increase in the number of city dwellers represented in itself a major aspect of the Stalin revolution, leading to rapid urbanization of Soviet society.

Meanwhile, Stalin remained the unquestioned master of the Soviet Union, with all his enemies vanquished and his position seemingly secure. But while his rivals from the '20s had suffered defeat, they were still alive and in the Party. Meanwhile, members of Stalin's loyal, personally appointed Politburo were beginning to wonder if their leader, who had guided them through the turmoil of collectivization and the Five-Year Plan, could now also prove effective in a relatively peaceful era. This brief swell of dissent only shows how egregiously people still misunderstood the nature of Stalin's rule. For in his mind, there was no question of his primacy: he was to be first, period; there was no room for dissent in his regime. Thus Stalin made Kirov the scapegoat, and it was Kirov who was assassinated on December 1, 1934. This was a turning point in Stalin's relationship with the rest of the Communist Party. The assassin was shot, along with all his close relatives. Then, in quick succession, a number of minor Party men who had supported Kamenev and Zinoviev in the '20s were also arrested, charged with terrorism, and shot. This was followed, in January of 1935, by the arrest of Zinoviev and Kamenev themselves, along with a number of their allies; they would be tried in secret, accused of having "inspired" Kirov's assassination, and given long jail terms. So began the "Great Terror," the aptly named period when Stalin effectively liquidated all traces of opposition to his rule. Large-scale purges struck the country, targeting all levels of society including children: Stalin reasoned that parents were more likely to confess to trumped-up charges of subversion and disloyalty if they knew their children's lives were at risk. Then, in August of 1936, Stalin engineered the first of what came to be known as the Show Trials, in which he accused Zinoviev, Kamenev and their associates of conspiring against Stalin and the government. In an amazing scene that was broadcast around the world and which played a large role in exposing the true nature of the Soviet regime every one of the accused Bolsheviks confessed their supposed crimes. Only later did the world discover that these confessions were elicited after long months of psychological torture and physical abuse. All of the confessors were sentenced to death.
The following year, another group of old Bolsheviks were subjected to the same treatment. Stalin stood directly behind these trials he delegated responsibilities in other aspects of the Terror, but for the Show Trials he personally chose the list of "guilty" men, he deceived the accused into thinking their confessions would earn them leniency in sentencing, and he signed the death warrants. Bukharin and the other "Rightists" could see the writing on the wall: Tomsky committed suicide, and for the rest of 1937, Stalin toyed with Bukharin and Rykov. Meanwhile, a wave of hysterical denunciations, arrests, and executions swept the country. In June of 1937, a number of leading army officers were arrested, along with the head of the secret police, Genrikh Yagoda a blow from which the army would take years to recover. The generals were convicted and executed in secret, but Yagoda received his death sentence at the Show Trials, in March 1938, as did Bukharin, Rykov, and their supporters. The Terror finally burnt itself out late in 1938, and at the Party Congress in March of the following year Stalin announced the end of the era of mass purges. But the campaign had caused lasting devastation--the exact numbers may never be known, but most historians estimate that millions of Russians were either executed or shipped off to the dreaded Siberian gulags between 1936 and '38. Perhaps the Soviet psyche suffered just as much damage, as an entire nation and its attendant culture sank into a deep-seated paranoia and a frightened submission to the state the effects of which are still being felt in Russia today. This was, not coincidentally, the era when Stalin's "cult of personality" rose to overwhelming prominence in the Soviet Union, as history was rewritten to make him the hero of every circumstance, his writings were handed out to schoolchildren with a reverence once reserved for the Bible, his childhood was mythologized and every reference to his name accompanied by phrases like "Leader of Genius of the Proletarian Revolution," "Supreme Genius of Humanity," and so on: fear had conditioned the Russians to forego all independent though.

To the West, the Soviet Union was a closed country, and western visitors saw what Stalin wanted them to see. During this period, with Europe and America wracked by the Great Depression, the now all-powerful Soviet leader presented them with smiling, happy villagers, bustling factories, and statistics that showed a truly remarkable period of industrial growth, unmatched by any industrial nation in the 19th century. Of course, the Soviet Union remained a desperately poor country, as every penny was reinvested in building industry, rather than improving the quality of life, and later analysis would show the Five Year Plans barely matched the growth that would have been expected had the N.E.P. been left in place. But in the early '30s, eager western intellectuals flocked to Moscow to see "the future" in action. Stalin's Soviet Union, where a cheerful, prosperous facade masked a regime built on murder and terror, was considered by its western sympathizers to be the wonder of the world.

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