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.


Stalin in the 1930s Part I: Collectivization

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


A Reminder of How Fast the World Can Change

I grew up in the Cold War. I missed the height of hysteria of the 1950s and the many bomb drills and shelters which were common. I wasn’t around for the Cuba Missile Crisis, but I remember clearly the feeling that the United States was constantly staring down “the evil” Soviet empire.

I remember the controversial made-for-TV movie “The Day After” which aired on network TV, talking about the aftereffects of a nuclear holocaust. It seemed like the world would be forever divided by ideology and rhetoric. Communism vs. Capitalism with no end in sight.

And then suddenly everything seemed to change – quickly.

Reagan told Gorbachev to “tear down the wall” at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin in June of 1987. Twenty-eight months later, the Berlin Wall came down, igniting jubilant and ecstatic people from Romania to Poland to stand up and be counted. The world was changing right before everyone’s eyes.

Two years later, the Soviet Republics themselves, from Kazakhstan to Estonia declared their freedom and the USSR could do nothing but acquiesce, as Russia itself went through a drastic make-over.

The seemingly impossible happened overnight. The Cold War had ended. The world would never be the same.

So this is a reminder to those who look at world politics in the present, noting the daunting tasks and great obstacles which need to be overcome – whether it be the repressive North Korean regime, the threat of a nuclear Iran, or the unsettled relations between the west and the Arab world; the world can indeed change quickly.

No one knows what will be right around the bend. It is, however, probably not what most pundits are predicting.

Stalin – the Little Boy

I’m a student of history as many of you know.  I came across this essay I wrote a while back about a little boy called Soso whom the world would eventually know as Joseph Stalin.  I’ll post more later, but I thought you might find this short paragraph to be of interest.  (Full documentation available on request.)

“Stalin was born Joseph Dzhughashvili.  His mother was a devout Orthodox Christian and his father was a cobbler easily taken to drink and violence.  Young Soso, as he was known in his younger years, felt firsthand the wanton brutality of his father’s drunken rages.  He also witnessed the terror that his father held over his mother.  But his father was not the only one who beat him.  His mother also would beat him mercilessly for insolence and disobedience which were frequent character traits of the bitter and difficult young boy (Radzinsky).  In fact the violence that he experienced early in life was a mere foretaste of the life that little Soso was to lead.  He may have had to endure the beatings of his childhood, but he eventually would not allow anyone to get the better of him.  He would back down to no one.”