By the end of the nineteen thirties, Joseph Stalin was a master magician who had weaved a spell of terror upon the Soviet whole population – a spell in which truth would be suppressed and utterly unneeded. A spell in which people would extol the marvelous leader Stalin only to find that the person extolling him the most might be his next victim. Under Stalin’s calculating eyes, he would set the standard for what true totalitarian leadership means. He would grind the countryside and with the bits remaining form a new industrial power. He would dismantle the party by purging the Leninists, the Bolsheviks, the Menshiviks, the leftists, rightists and even the Stalinists. He would purge his friends along with his enemies. When the dust settled, Stalin remained – the only one who really mattered in the first place.
Stalin used the first five year plan of 1928-1932 as a way to collectivize society in order to produce a modern, streamline industrial nation all working together to accomplish the Great Dream of socialism. The five year plan clearly departed from Lenin’s New Economic Program, but in typical Stalin fashion, he continued to mask his policy as a mere continuation of Lenin’s dreams. There was great internal debate in the politburo as to how the first five year plan should proceed, but in the end, Stalin got his way. He was once again dominating as the school yard bully. Just like his years at the Gori church school, he may not have been the most original, talented or physically domineering, but through sheer determination and cunning maneuvers, he sliced apart his enemies and rivals and engineered his own reality to accomplish what he wanted. There was only room for one bully – one ego – one brute – one Stalin. His tenacity and his amazing ability to survive were only now starting to come to the forefront. Much later in the decade he would leave no doubt as he would strike terror into the heart of everyone; but for now, his measured antics were meant to distance his rivals and forward his agenda.
An increase in economic output was on the forefront of his mind. Intimidation was a method he was familiar with and it seemed to work just fine. In March of 1928, Stalin instigated an investigation into a counter-revolutionary plot by a group of engineers at the Shakhty coal mine. The sham of a trial produced coerced confessions and execution for some and long prison sentences for others. It was clearly used as a warning to all industrial managers and economists to get on board with his economic program or else (Service, A History 174-175).
The Kulaks, the more well to do peasantry, were purposefully hit hard during this period of economic growth and upheaval. Stalin put in motion the collectivization of farms and the nationalization of industry. Private commercial enterprises ceased to exist and force was used at every turn to repress the Kulaks (Service, A History 170). When the quantity of grain received from the government did not meet the intended goal, kulaks were accused of grain hoarding. Poorer peasants were encouraged, with the hope of receiving better benefits, to turn in those wealthier neighbors who were possibly hoarding grain (Service, A History 174). Fear and intimidation were wide spread. Any and all who showed resistance or displeasure with governmental policies were dealt with forcefully and firmly. The kulaks were expelled from collective farms and either sent to work camps or executed. A ‘sub-kulak’ category was created to punish even poorer workers who protested against the harsh policies. These ‘sub-kulaks’ too were dealt with decisively (Service, A History 180). No one could get in Stalin’s way.
The agricultural collectivization continued and Stalin by 1931 had achieved his great agrarian victory. Nearly all of the farmlands were now under the control of the collective farms. Stalin wanted the government to control the farms just like it controlled industry. He thought it was the government’s role to own land, set quotas and control production (Service, A History 183). But perhaps he was not only saying that government knows best. Perhaps what he was really saying is that he knew best. As Stalin continued to build the Soviet nation, it becomes clearer and clearer that his ultimate goal was survival and absolute, totalitarian power. There could be no one outside himself that he could trust. No one outside himself would be able to produce any worthwhile ideas at all. It would be ridiculous to say that peasants should have a say in their own livelihoods. Government or should we say Stalin knows best. This type of authoritarian presence would come to its ultimate fruition in the Great Terror of the late 1930s.
The results of the first five year plan were devastating. Upwards of five million people died from ‘de-kulakization’ and from grain seizures (Service, A History 181). But that didn’t matter. In fact, he must have been happy to see the well-off of society suffer so greatly. He undoubtedly remembered how as a boy he hated the wealth around him which made his mother subservient to the whims of richer Jews who offered her work. Stalin biographer Edvard Radzinsky states that the unending hunger and poverty of his childhood sowed hate and resentment in him that would permeate the rest of his life (26). Stalin was now in a position to even the score. No more groveling to those above you. No more bourgeois actions which oppressed the peasants and held them down. Now all would be the same with one great exception – Stalin. He would get what he deserved – everything.
Now it could be argued that Stalin’s tactics of uprooting society into collectivized farms and national industrial production did not achieve equality and the overturning of the classes which Stalin wanted. Because, in fact, there continued to be government officials and industrial managers who were better off. Were they not still dominating over the workers and the peasants? From the outside that looks to be the case, but the Great Terror proved this to be somewhat untrue. Everyone became subject to Stalin’s terror. A peasant or worker may have had to grovel to a manager or political officer one week, but that same officer was most likely gone the next. Everyone from the peasantry to the politburo became expendable under the dominating fist of Stalin. There were two classes – Stalin and everyone else.
Next Up Part II: The Great Terror