Stalin in the 1930s Part II: The Great Terror

Read Part I HERE!

In his biography Stalin, Robert Service writes of Joseph as a young child being someone who was determined to prevail. “No matter how many times he was knocked down, he got back up and fought on.  He broke the rules if it helped him win.  Joseph was sly.  He was also ambitious: he wanted to lead the gang and was resentful when he did not get his way (20).”   It was that same Stalin who had overseen some successes in his five year plan but was after so much more.  He was already leading the ‘gang’ but there were still too many people with opposing ideas.  There were too many of the old school Leninists who could possibly one day vie for power.   He planned a grand scale attack on his enemies, friends, colleagues and even family.  Anyone who he saw as even a remote threat must go.  And by the end of the Great Terror, there would only be one person left standing on the playground.

Sergei Kirov, a longtime associate of Stalin and the Leningrad party boss, was assassinated in December 1934.  This set in motion a series of trials and events which would send the upper-echelons of the party into a frenzy of incrimination and back-stabbing which in the end would eliminate all of Stalin’s rivals.   The Kirov assassination has been the subject of much research and debate.  Its importance cannot be underestimated.  He was murdered by an ex-follower of Zinoviev, the old school contemporary revolutionary who was contemporary of Lenin, Kamenev and Trotsky.  Stalin was outraged by the assassination and used it as a pretext to go after his rivals Zinoviev and Kamenev.  However, was his outrage really play acting?  Was Stalin himself really behind the assassination?   Radzinsky claims this is the case.  Stalin’s faithful puppet Yagoda, who would one day himself be claimed as a Great Terror victim,  got the word from Stalin to watch over Kirov carefully which in the twisted language of Stalin meant to kill his friend.  Yagoda, it is claimed, then set the plan in motion which would take out Stalin’s friend and set the scene for the purges to begin (320-324).  However, Robert Service argues that the evidence that points to Stalin ordering the killing is circumstantial at best and that no direct proof has ever been found to support this claim (Stalin, 315).  Service does concede, however, that it is possible because no one benefitted more from Kirov’s death than Stalin himself.

Since the assassin was an ex-Zinovievite, Stalin accused Zinoviev and Kamenev of complicity in the assassination.  They were forced to accept ‘moral responsibility’ for their former adherent who had committed this crime (Service, A History 215).  All former Trotskyists who had at one time or another followed the Trotsky the exiled revolutionary who stood as a threat to Stalin’s power were sent to labor camps for at least three years (Service, A History 216).   Kamenev and Zinoviev eventually confessed to the plot to assassinate Kirov and Stalin and were executed.  However, everyone knew that there was no such plot.  It was created in the mind of Stalin and fear became such an agent of force that no one dared counter.  The Great Terror was building steam but still in its infant stages, but what was Stalin trying to achieve?

According to Service, Stalin’s guiding rationale was to build an efficient state which was subservient to his personal dictatorship (A History 211).  To do this, he needed a labor force to keep the production churning, and he needed to eliminate his enemies who could undermine what he was trying to do.  Whoever he said were the enemies of the people would then become the scapegoats for all of the country’s problems (Service, A History 211).  Proof was not necessary.  Truth was certainly not a requirement.   Anyone could be a scapegoat.  Everyone became susceptible to the Boss’s whim.  This turned the whole of Russian society on its end and led to an endless series of incriminations, self-incriminations, back stabbings and endless mock trials which killed hundreds of thousands of party cadres.  Radzinsky writes: “At hundreds of public meetings, millions of citizens welcomed the orgy of arrests and voted for death sentences for “enemies of people” (392).  The accused who managed to survive also fed the industrial stream with an endless supply of cheap, prison labor.

Service writes that “…neither the exiled communist ex-oppositionists nor the deported former middle-class city dwellers had been conspiring against Stalin.  But Stalin did not want to give them the chance to do so” (A History 215).   This perhaps is the point of this whole exercise.  Stalin understood what it takes to survive and rise to the top.  He understood the plotting, the backstabbing, the conniving and the lying necessary to achieve the position he now held.  He grew up in an environment which gave no one a break.  Everything had to be fought for.  Everything had to be preserved by strong determination, will and cunningness.  When he was a young teen at the Tiflis seminary, he did everything in his power to fight against the regulations and governance of the school.  He was the classic rebel who read banned material and formed groups of friends to undermine the authorities of the school (Service, Stalin 36-37).  As the young revolutionary Koba Stalin working his way up the revolutionary ladder into the higher stratosphere of party influence, Stalin would side with anyone who he felt could help him establish his hold on his position.  He wouldn’t hesitate to flatter, backstab or change directions to get what he wanted.  He understood better than anyone how to achieve success and accumulate power.  Now that he had power, he was going to make sure that there were no other Koba-like individuals around who also could use their circumstances to one day threaten his leadership.  He knew that the only person who could not threaten his leadership was a dead man.  No one would be spared.  This ensured that he alone would remain on top.

The madness of the Great Terror killed millions.  Quotas were set and the department of the Internal Affairs (NKVD) made sure no agency, no territory, no government department was left unscathed.  Officials were accused of counter revolutionary activities and sent to prison or the firing squad.  Officials started accusing others before they themselves would be accused of wrong doing.  Prosecutors for the traitors in their midst would give the NKVD blank forms in which they could insert whatever name they like (Radzinsky 391).  Fear gripped everyone.  Thousands were dragged to the grave or to the prison camp all the while extolling the greatness of Stalin.  Between one million and one and a half million people were killed by firing squad between 1937-1938 while many others died under harsh and brutal conditions (Service, A History 222-223).

There was no rhyme to the madness.  Many would wonder right to their execution why they were arrested (Radzinsky 411).  Fear would cower everyone and then Stalin could construct his “…homogeneous society of ‘contented’ citizens” (Radzinsky 419).  Stalin saw that if officials under him were willing to allow the execution of their closest friend or relative without giving out so much as a whimper, then he had achieved the level of power he desired.

Few countries have lived through the turmoil the trials that Soviet Russia experienced in the nineteen thirties.  Stalin had eliminated his enemies and former party members until he alone had the power.  He had destroyed the countryside through building an industrial powerhouse.  At the doorstep of World World II, millions were already dead but few would realize that the bloodiest and deadliest episode in Russian history was still yet to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Radzinsky, Edvard. Stalin: The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents From Russia’s Secret Archives.  New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

 

Service, Robert.  A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Service, Robert.  Stalin: A Biography.  Cambridge: Belknap Harvard, 2004.

 

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