The Great Terror – Stalin in Command
“Death solves all problems – No man, no problem”
-Josef Stalin

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Josef Stalin

Stalin came to power following the death of Lenin (1924) after outmaneuvering the other two members of his triumvirate (a very Roman sort of thing to do) and ensuring the expulsion of Leon Trotsky from the USSR. Trotsky, a more right-wing member of the Bolshevik Party, was a threat to the ascension of Stalin and was dealt with in the manner of all Stalin’s enemies. Stalin’s paranoid obsession with threats within his own party would be a constant theme of his near thirty-year reign.
In 1934, a popular young politician named Sergei Kirov was assassinated. The assassination itself may or may not have been on Stalin’s orders. Stalin, however, blamed the murder on a massive internal conspiracy in the Communist party. The party was then purged of any who did not support Stalin’s policies. These politicians were generally arrested, tried in elaborate mock trials, and either executed or sent to
Stalin’s recently expanded Gulag camps. Stalin justified this move with the claim that the party members were terrorists and spies, potentially working for a hostile Germany. Stalin would use the excuse of fascist spies many more times during his reign.

Politicians were not alone in feeling the weight of Stalin’s wrath and paranoia. Under the new regime of terror and secrecy (controlled by Stalin’s sinister secret police, the NKVD) all Russians were under suspicion of treason, guilty until proven innocent. An anonymous tip-off was considered enough evidence to have any member of society shot or sent to Siberia. For obvious reasons, very few were proven innocent. Occasionally, entire classes were targeted. The kulaks, defined as farming peasants wealthy enough to hire labourers, were another group to be targeted for destruction. It is estimated that seven and a half million people were killed by Stalin’s “dekulakizing” process.
The army was the next target for Stalin’s irrational rage. The fascist-spy excuse was used again to justify the killings, but it is more likely that Stalin’s paranoia had convinced him of an upcoming military coup. Whatever the reason, in 1937 Stalin signed the death warrants for 30,000 members of the armed forces, including 50% of all army officers. In retrospect, the extraordinary foolishness of this move is clear. Stalin obviously suspected a future war with Germany. Killing one’s own army is not a good way to win a war.
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A famous photograph of Stalin and Nicloai Yezhov, and then again with Yezhov airbrushed out after he had been purged.

The final purge was of the NKVD itself. In a very clever political maneuver, Stalin managed to firstly have all those who knew the details of his purges executed, and secondly to blame the now dead secret police on the excessive executions of the previous years. Even the leader of the NKVD, Nicolai Yezhov, was killed. Yezhov was then erased from all party records. Nobody was safe from Stalin.
The original Gulag camps in Siberia had been set up by Lenin in 1917, but under Stalin they were re-purposed as a convenient place to store the victims of Stalin’s purges who were allowed to live. These camps, besides being a death trap for all who were sufficiently unlucky to end up inside, were used to sustain the ever-increasing demands for coal from the new five-year-plan factories. More than fourteen million people would find themselves in a gulag camp during Stalin’s regime.

1.6 million of these people would die in the camps. This was Stalin’s legacy. He killed more people than any other individual in the history of the human race.
However, not all the murders on Stalin’s conscience were lives signed away to the Gulag or firing squad. Perhaps the single most horrific act of Stalin’s reign occurred in 1932, when Stalin’s harshest collectivization policy came into effect. The collectivization of agriculture was a drastic communist policy brought in as part of Stalin’s five-year plan to industrialize Russia. The policy required that communal farms surrender all grain to the state for redistribution, and that the farms must meet ever-growing quotas or suffer consequences. Stalin also used the policy as a tool for genocide – when rumours of potential unrest in the Ukraine reached Moscow, Stalin used the policy to forcibly seize all grain from the region. Five million people were starved to death as an example to the rest of the Soviet Union. That any one human conscience could bear that much death staggers belief.

The Politburo under Stalin
"Comrade Stalin, having become general secretary, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution,"
Vladimir Lenin

The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Politburo) was the main governing body of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union and was the highest decision making body during the Soviet era. The Politburo was the very incarnation of the more fascist elements of the Soviet totalitarianism. All the power in the nation rested in the hands of this select (and in many cases, specifically selected) few.
The Politburo was created by the original Bolshevik leaders and was made up of members of the Central Committee. The Bolsheviks wanted a committee that could unify and centralize the decision making of the Party. Despite being a subcommittee of the Central Committee, the power of the Politburo was absolute. It made all major policy decisions and oversaw the operations of all other committees within the Soviet Union. The decisions made by the Politburo were passed down through the Central Committee, as well as the Party Congress and the legislative bodies of the Soviet socialist republics. The Politburo held a firm grasp on the government, with party personnel in important government positions. Originally composed of seven members (Lenin, Zinov’ev, Kamenev, Trackij, Stalin, Sokol’nikov and Bubnov) it wasn’t long before the Politburo was reorganized. Although created in 1917 just before the Bolshevik Revolution, the Politburo did not become fully functional until March of 1919.
In 1919, the Central Committee appointed a five-member Politburo, under the instruction of the Eighth Party Congress. The Politburo was now a permanent body, with members Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev and Nickolai Krestinsky, chosen to make decisions on urgent matters. The Central Committee was in charge of electing members for the Politburo, which was composed of both full members and candidate members. Candidate members were not allowed to vote, and included Buharin, Zinov’ev and Kalinin.
Stalin came to power in 1924 after the death of Lenin. He was not the sort to deal with the decentralization of power inherent in even a committee of five. Between 1924 and 1930, Stalin managed to rid the Politburo of all its original members and take complete control. Once the Politburo shifted to Stalin’s command it functioned on a hierarchical basis, with Stalin leading things under the title of General Secretary. The composition of both the Central Committee and the Politburo were arranged by the General Secretary, who had ultimate power. On the 23 of July, 1926, Zinov’ev was relieved of his duties in the Politburo due to differing political views. By now, Stalin completely dominated the group. The politburo was one of the first organizations to feel the weight of Stalin’s wrath. The survival rate of the new politburo, like that of the rest of the Communist Party, was not high.
Following Stalin’s death, things within the Politburo changed. The body was enlarged and renamed the Presidium, following the wishes of the deceased Stalin. The Presidium was planned to be a significant change; however, Stalin’s plans were cut short and his successors went on to return to the ways of the original Politburo, with little more than a name change. The authority of the General Secretary varied, members of the Politburo had access to more information, allowing changes to be made to the positions within and everyone had more freedom within the body, now that Stalin was no longer a threat.


Stalin and the Thought Police

"We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts - yes, his thoughts - threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!" – A toast by Stalin, 1937


In the year 1948, in London, a man named George Orwell wrote the influential novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four. The main character of this novel lives in a shady world where the darkest and most repressive elements of the totalitarian left and right mingle into a society of fear and espionage. The government is run by the sinister Big Brother, a mustachioed man who rules the state like a deity. The entire book is obviously a very thinly veiled assault on the regime of Stalin in Russia. Stalin (mustache and all) is the sinister Big Brother. The root of his power lies with the Thought Police.
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During the reign of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet secret police organizations played a much larger role than they did during Lenin’s rule. Stalin saw menaces and threats to his person and party everywhere, and he gave his secret police forces unreasonable amounts of power in the arrest, trial, and execution of the perceived dissenters. At the time, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) was the primary police organization in the Soviet Union. The NKVD was employed to spy on any person or group that Stalin feared. They could arrest a person based on naught but a single anonymous tip. They conducted all the trials of the arrested (guilty until proven innocent, no jury) and arranged for all those millions found guilty to be executed or sent to the Gulag camps in Siberia.
The Crest of the NKVD

The NKVD was preceded by the Cheka, which was created in the early days of the Bolshevik government in December of 1917. Created by Vladimir Lenin, the Cheka was the first of a number of security agencies in the Soviet Union. Originally formed as a means of investigating counterrevolution and sabotage, the Cheka shifted into a paranoid and corrupt organization by 1918. The fact that from 1924 to 1953 the organization was under the control of one of the most paranoid dictators in history hardly improved the police’s respect for civil liberties. Under Stalin, the organization became Stalin’s primary weapon in his war against any who would dare speak or think against him. They were the Thought Police.
The successor of the original Cheka, the OGPU, continued the brutal regime of repression that has become synonymous with Stalin’s regime. Under Stalin’s command, the OGPU began its task of modernizing the Soviet Union. The collectivization of agriculture was a desire of Stalin’s that the OGPU was responsible for putting into action. This brutal policy resulted in the deportation and murder of the kulaks (the wealthier of the peasants in the incumbent agricultural economy). This, like every other large-scale attack on the Russian people by Stalin was carried out with maniacal brutality. The OGPU also enforced the genocide of the Ukrainian peasants in 1932. These tasks, along with surveillance of the population and the operation of the Gulag labour camps, were the OGPU’s main duties up until its assimilation with the NKVD in 1934.
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Once again, the OGPU changed its name, becoming the GUGB, and rejoined the NKVD. With Genrikh Yagoda at the head, the new NKVD assisted Stalin in carrying out his purges, leading to the deaths of 750 000 people between the years of 1937 and 1938 alone. Stalin began to see experienced Bolshevik leaders as a threat and, after the death of Leningrad Communist Party chief, Kirov, he decided to eliminate Kamenev and Zinoviev. The pair, who were innocent, were arrested and executed on the 25 of August, 1936. It was an
Prisoners in a Gulag camp under Stalin
execution carried out by the NKVD and supervised by Yagoda. Stalin continued his killing spree, even executing Yagoda and, later, his successor, Nikolai Yezhov. The purges, however, were not merely executions. A purged person was erased from party records, from popular vernacular, and from history. History was constantly rewritten to remove the dead and to show Stalin in a more favourable light. Again, the influence of Stalin on George Orwell is clear.
Eventually the NKVD became the MGB. During World War II the MGB played an important role under the direction of V.S. Abakumov. The MGB was largely responsible for the progress made through Soviet espionage throughout the war and continued to make a difference after the war. The MGB was strict and made an enormous number of arrests while in power. The Red Orchestra, a well-known Soviet espionage group during the Second World War was just one of the MGB’s networks. They managed to infiltrate American and British governments and release an estimated 15 000 to 20 000 documents back to the Soviets.
In 1946 MGB gained even more powers of security. One of the primary new responsibilities of the organization was the oversight and management of Russia’s new nuclear weapons program. The MGB was therefore one of the most feared groups in the western world in the Cold War period.
“Man of Steel”

“History may not like him but history cannot forget him.”
– Time Magazine

Russia, and later the Soviet Union, was a country of incredible diversity and variation. For years, the Russian people had been united only in their beliefs – in God and in the Tsar. The Bolshevik party, upon coming to power, smartly proceeded to do away with both of these unifying concepts. Russia had no god, and Russia had no king. The nation required a new focus, a new ideal. It found one in Stalin.
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One of Stalin's many propaganda posters

As soon as Stalin came to power, he was accepted as a communist demigod. This irrational veneration sprung from two sources. The first was simply that the Russians had no other deity to trust – The USSR was an aggressively secular state that had recently executed its god-appointed monarch. The second was a manifestation of Stalin’s ego and need for control. If those who spoke out against Stalin tended to go missing in the night, the safest thing to do was to sing his praises. This potent combination of belief mixed with authoritarian enforcement of belief, so reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition of centuries past, resulted in a Russia totally devoted to their leader – a perfect manifestation of the Cult of Personality. This illogical adoration resulted in many a ridiculous, fawning poem. For instance:

O great Stalin, O leader of the peoples,
Thou who broughtest man to birth.
Thou who fructifies the earth,
Thou who restorest to centuries,
Thou who makest bloom the spring,
Thou who makest vibrate the musical chords...
Thou, splendour of my spring, O thou,
Sun reflected by millions of hearts.
-A. O. Avdienko

The obvious ridiculousness of this sentimental, shameless self-abasement has influenced a fair amount of mockery from the modern era. For instance:

When Stalin is standing right near ya,
You’d better make sure he can’t hear ya,
‘Cause if you say things
About changes he brings
You’ll get a free pass to Siberia
-Jennifer Whyte, 2010




The adoration of the public was encouraged by the Bolshevik (renamed Communist) party by means of aggressive propaganda. Posters, poetry, and films were created to describe Stalin in a glorious light. Cities and towns were named after him (most notably Stalingrad). Statues of Stalin popped up in every town. Children were taught that Stalin was a wise, kind, and noble leader, even as he signed away thousands of lives. Shockingly, 47% of Russians surveyed in 2006 still call Stalin “A positive figure”. It is a testament to the power of Stalin’s personality cult that the greatest murderer in history is still revered in the country he butchered.
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Another of Stalin's many propaganda posters

The Big Questions
It is difficult to understand the reality of life under Stalin’s reign from our lofty perch in the 21st century western world. The Russian people of the early twentieth century could not possibly look at their time objectively – they were living in a time in which there was no truth save what the government (aka. Stalin) told them. It is not impossible to construe the fact that Stalin, to the Russians, was both loved and feared. Propaganda was ever-present and all messages came directly from the state. If one believed the propaganda in its entirety, Stalin would be a godlike figure, dispensing justice and harmony whilst beating back the sinister fascists and greedy capitalists alike. This was, quite simply, the only opinion permitted in Russia. It is not surprising that many adopted it.
However, it would have been impossible even in a totalitarian propaganda state to not notice that people who spoke up tended to go missing. The Russians were aware that those who questioned the might of Stalin would be shipped off to Siberia. They were right to fear Stalin. Notwithstanding, the genius of the Soviet propaganda was to introduce other demons to fear. If one feared Hitler more than one feared Stalin, and Stalin would provide protection from Hitler, Stalin would be loved. He was the lesser of two evils. The fear and awe instilled by the cult of personality were as potent as any instilled by other religions and cults.


“Long live Stalin! He loves you!
Sing these words, or you know what he’ll do...”
-Pig with the Face of a Boy, “The Complete History of the Soviet Union, as Told By a Humble Worker”

It is the solemn duty of the historian to pass judgment on the past by considering the possibilities of choices that were made. However, this hindsight, the weighing of the possible versus the truth, often leads to the worst sort of objectivity. We cannot know a past that did not occur, and thus we cannot speculate with any sort of accuracy on the cost of it all. Such is true of the argument that Stalin’s brutal five-year plans led to the eventual victory of the Allies over Germany in the Second World War.
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Stalin’s plan to industrialize Russia through any means necessary was merciless. It sanctioned the genocide of the Ukrainian farmers and the deportation of the kulaks. It condemned millions to work in factories without choice or reprieve. It is responsible for millions of deaths, years of pain, and countless ruined lives. No possible past could outweigh the horror and evil of reality.



Some of the many victims of
Stalin's regime




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