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Stalin's use of terror

Lia Kelinsky

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Stalin’s use of terror was essential if he was to remain in power. To explain this you need to go back to 1917.

When Lenin returned to Russia on 3rd April, 1917, he announced what became known as the April Theses. Lenin attacked those Bolsheviks who had supported the Provisional Government. Instead, he argued, revolutionaries should be telling the people of Russia that they should take over the control of the country. In his speech, Lenin urged the peasants to take the land from the rich landlords and the industrial workers to seize the factories.

These views shocked Russia’s revolutionaries. They had always supported the idea put forward by Karl Marx that a communist revolution could only take place in an advanced capitalist country with a politicised industrial working class. It was believed at the time that a revolution led by a small elite would result in a military dictatorship.

Stalin was one of the first to accept Lenin’s views on revolution. Trotsky also quickly changed his mind about waiting until a politicised working class was ready to take power. However, he insisted that the Bolsheviks developed a policy of “permanent revolution” in order to stop the development of a military dictatorship.

Julius Martov and the Mensheviks remained opposed to Lenin’s call to seize power. So did Rosa Luxemburg. While in prison Luxemburg wrote The Russian Revolution, where she criticized Vladimir Lenin and the dictatorial and terrorist methods being used by the Bolsheviks in Russia.

Luxemburg told the British journalist, Morgan Philips Price (a supporter of the Russian Revolution) why she was concerned about what was happening in Russia: “She did not like the Russian Communist Party monopolizing all power in the Soviets and expelling anyone who disagreed with it. She feared that Lenin's policy had brought about, not the dictatorship of the working classes over the middle classes, which she approved of but not the dictatorship of the Communist Party over the working classes. The dictatorship of a class - yes, she said, but not the dictatorship of a party over a class. Later, I began to see that Luxemburg had much wisdom in her attitude, though it was not apparent to me at the time.”

In 1921 Alexandra Kollantai (Commissar for welfare) and Alexander Shlyapnikov (Commissar for Labour) formed a faction that became known as the Workers' Opposition. Kollantai published a pamphlet The Workers' Opposition, where she called for members of the party to be allowed to discuss policy issues and for more political freedom for trade unionists. She also advocated that before the government attempts to "rid Soviet institutions of the bureaucracy that lurks within them, the Party must first rid itself of its own bureaucracy."

At the Tenth Party Congress in 1922, Lenin proposed a resolution that would ban all factions within the party. He argued that factions within the party were "harmful" and encouraged rebellions such as the Kronstadt Rising. The Party Congress agreed with Lenin and the Workers' Opposition was dissolved.

Lenin was now able to dictate policy until his death. Once in power, Stalin first dealt with the leaders of the Workers’ Opposition. Alexandra Kollantai and Alexander Shlyapnikov were sent abroad as diplomats while others were imprisoned.

Stalin then ditched the Marxist view of world revolution. He now began promoting the idea of “socialism in one country”. Trotsky and most of the other leading Bolsheviks were totally opposed to this change of policy. The only way Stalin could remain in power was to remove his main critic from the government.

In 1925 Stalin was able to arrange for Trotsky to be removed from power. Some of his supporters pleaded with him to organize a military coup. As commissar of war Trotsky was in a good position to arrange this. However, Trotsky rejected the idea and instead resigned his post. He was eventually forced into exile.

Stalin cleverly manipulated his opponents over the next few years. However, by In the summer of 1932 Stalin became aware that opposition to his policies were growing. Some party members were publicly criticizing Stalin and calling for the readmission of Trotsky to the party. When the issue was discussed at the Politburo, Stalin demanded that the critics should be arrested and executed. Sergey Kirov, who up to this time had been a staunch Stalinist, argued against this policy. When the vote was taken, the majority of the Politburo supported Kirov against Stalin.

Kirov was now a major threat to Stalin's power. Kirov was assassinated by Leonid Nikolayev, on 1st December, 1934. Stalin claimed that Nikolayev was part of a larger conspiracy led by Trotsky against the Soviet government. This resulted in the arrest and trial in August, 1936, of Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and thirteen other party members who had been critical of Stalin. All were found guilty and executed.

In September, 1936, appointed Nikolai Yezhov as head of the NKVD, the Communist Secret Police. Yezhov quickly arranged the arrest of all the leading political figures in the Soviet Union who were critical of Stalin. The Secret Police broke prisoners down by intense interrogation. This included the threat to arrest and execute members of the prisoner's family if they did not confess. The interrogation went on for several days and nights and eventually they became so exhausted and disoriented that they signed confessions agreeing that they had been attempting to overthrow the government.

In January, 1937, Karl Radek and sixteen other leading members of the Communist Party were put on trial. They were accused of working with Leon Trotsky in an attempt to overthrow the Soviet government with the objective of restoring capitalism. Thirteen of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to death. Radek and two others were sentenced to ten years.

The next trial in March, 1938, involved twenty-one leading members of the party. This included Nickolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Krestinsky and Christian Rakovsky. They were accused of being involved with Trotsky in a plot against Stalin and with spying for foreign powers. They were all found guilty and were either executed or died in labour camps.

By this time there was virtually no one left who had taken a major part in the Bolshevik Revolution. The society created by Stalin now had nothing to do with communism and socialism.

It is worth remembering that the West applauded the purge of these Bolsheviks. They fully agreed with Stalin’s policy of socialism (state capitalism) in one country.

After the Second World War Stalin did indeed expand the Soviet Empire when he took control of several countries in Eastern Europe. This had nothing to do with world revolution. Communism was not introduced into these countries (although he used leaders of the Communist Parties in these countries to govern these satellite states). The main reason Stalin did this was to provide a buffer zone around the Soviet Union. This policy was highly successful and the US and UK decided not to repeat the mistake after the First World War and made no serious attempt to overthrow Stalin. After all, they knew he posed no real threat to the capitalist system.





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As John says, it's important to bear in mind that Stalin did not initiate the use of terror in Russia. The first secret police force, the Cheka -- Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage -- was established under Feliks Dzerzhinsky in December 1917. This conducted the Red Terror during the Civil War period, using much the same tactics as Stalin was to use later.

Whilst I agree with John that the employment of terror tactics was fundamental to the survival of Stalin's regime, recent research has tended to show that it was not as all-pervasive as had been claimed by historians writing in the climate of the Cold War. Whilst high party and government officials (especially in the security services) did indeed live in terror of the anonymous knock on the door in the early hours of the morning, ordinary Russians, after the initial period of the collectivization and de-kulakization campaigns, were largely free of the effects of the purges.

Another point to remember is the important economic contributions made by Gulag camps to Stalin's 5-year plans. Much of the infrastructure work was carried out by slave labour from the camps, and camp commanders would frequently extend the sentences of workers they considered important to efficient production... The security services were encouraged to make sure that labour supplies were frequently replenished by the arrival of more political prisoners...

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Hi Lia, you need to change your school details in your signature now.

The question of Stalin's use of terror is also bound up in the question of 'totalitarianism', Robin's essay on the student forum is a good overview. http://studenteducationforum.ipbhost.com/i...st=0entry1317

In the traditional, 'totalitarian' view 'terror' and coercion is very important to understanding why people acted as they did. In the social history/post-Glasnost views (when historians have actually looked at the evidence) terror appears to be less significant. My old professor Neil Harding had an excellent phrase to describe the nature of control in the USSR - 'organic labour state'. Put basically, if the state (the Party) controls access to everything, you tend to try and please the state. Saying and doing the right thing, makes it more likely that you and your family will gain access to scarce resources like health care, education and consumer goods.

Robin's essay:

Was Stalin’s Russia a Totalitarian Regime During the Period of 1929-1941?

Robin Webb, 2004

There are two main fields of thought brought up when addressing this question; the traditional and revised views. In general, the traditional ideas date back to pre-1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, while the revised views have only just begun to emerge. The traditional stance was to see Stalin’s Soviet Union as true totalitarian regime, much more so than Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. Their key argument was linking Stalin’s ruthlessness with the overall effectiveness of the USSR as such a regime. Stalin was labelled the most ‘efficient’ of all ‘totalitarian’ dictators. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the release of archived documents, newer ideas surfaced and are still developing today. Some views remained the same, such as Stalin being seen as the world’s most ruthless dictators, due to his cynical and unparalleled use of terror on such a massive scale. Some ideas, however, are changing. The efficiency of the USSR is no longer seen as the product of Stalin’s ruthlessness and Stalin’s Russia has been accused of being even more ‘ramshackle’ than Nazi Germany. The most important, however, is that Stalin is seen to have been pushed by the circumstances as much as he controlled them.

One of the five main sections focused on by traditional view was the political set-up of Stalin’s Russia. They argued it to be more rigidly controlled than Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, as the Bolshevik government was not an amendment to an existing structure, but a whole new system all together. The Bolsheviks had completely destroyed the Tsarist political system and rejected any form of Western democracy, such as the Provisional Government. The Soviets were subordinated to the Bolshevik party under Lenin with little objection, and as a result Stalin exerted greater personal control. Stalin’s Russia was seen as a ‘personalised dictatorship’. He kept political opposition to a minimum through his methods of control.

It is argued by ‘traditional’ historians that Stalin put in practice an unprecedented and unparalleled use of terror and coercion. Stalin surpassed Hitler and Mussolini through his use of the secret police, the NKVD, and mass purges. Stalin faced little political opposition, and it is clear to see why. Any possible hostility would have been extinguished as quickly as possible. This allowed Stalin to easily introduce political, economic and cultural changes such as the 1936 constitution. “He could easily stamp out any move towards meaningful oppositional to him.” (Stephen J Lee). Some of these early ‘historians’ even perceived the famine as a deliberate act to secure power. Stalin was seen to, therefore, have complete and unimpeded control over every aspect of Russia, including the economy.

Stalin used his political power to introduce economic changes with mixed success. Collectivisation of 1928 was seen as a disaster in terms of agricultural production and created widespread peasant opposition. The traditional view, however, is that his intention was to exploit agriculture to subsidise industrial growth, in which he gained long term success. The introduction of the first three Five Year Plans came with little resistance, and heavily developed Russian industry resulting in their survival in World War Two. Stalin controlled the economy in such a way that he in no way relied on outside assistance – he exploited Soviet production. Stalin insisted heavy industry came first, causing the peasants to subsidise industrial growth by sacrificing profits and the dream of owning consumer goods. Stalin’s economic policy was therefore seen as ruthless and totalitarian, arriving at an effective industrial outcome. The same idea of complete control by Stalin as an individual continues in the traditional views of Stalin’s foreign policy.

Stalin’s precise objectives when it came to foreign affairs were unclear, but the traditional interpretation saw that he determined the overall rationale of the policy and personally dictated the course it should take. Although Stalin experienced both errors and successes, he was labelled the most pragmatic of all statesmen. ‘Traditional’ historians, including E.H. Carr, saw Stalin as a strong totalitarian dictator. One key event used to argue this point is the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. They were unsure to label Stalin as an adept planner or supreme opportunist, but they were certain about one thing – this was the cynical act of a ruthless dictator at the peak of his power. It was argued Stalin extended his power and control over all aspects of life, including Russian culture.

Stalin took Russia’s culture in his hands, deciding to reverse the ‘radicalisation’ of Lenin’s era. Lenin wanted to achieve social equality by abolishing classes and weakening the family, as well as establishing new approaches to education. Stalin, according to early views, aimed to enhance his own image and exert control though social channels by restoring differentials based on economic performance, reviving the family as the main social unit and emphasizing a traditional Russian culture. Stalin was going against Lenin’s ideas and, more importantly, communist principles. This did not matter, as Stalin was to seen to have controlled every aspect of Russian life. These traditional views, however, were not developed by historians but political scientists, left wing writers and Cold War propagandists, such as Arendt and his ‘Model of Totalitarian Conquest’ comparing the USSR to Nazi Germany. The only reliable views of Stalin’s regime came after Glasnost and the opening of Russian archives.

Only after Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the idea of Glasnost did historians begin to abandon assumptions. The view of Stalin as the most ruthless dictator remained, but many ideas began to change, and are still changing today with the discovery of new material.

There is much continuality with the traditional views when it comes to the idea of Stalin’s rise to power, though also many differences. He is viewed to have gained power by partly through his own abilities, but mainly through circumstances moving in his favour, such as the introduction of the NEP and the end of War Communism in 1921. By 1927 the idea of moderation was failing and radicalism was reviving with new energy, which coincided with Stalin’s consolidation of power. This allowed Stalin to launch new programs such as collectivisation, political centralisation and the Five Year Plans. Stalin is now seen to have been reactivating the earlier dynamism of the Bolsheviks and stealing policies for which he once condemned Trotsky. Stalin is now seen as determined to go with the idea of radicalisation though the economy and society. So, little difference between the traditional views so far, but this is when it begins to change. Stalin’s use of power.

Revisionism uncovered that there was less power at the centre than commonly supposed, as the core of the administration and party encountered difficulties exercising control over local officials and institutions. Although Stalin took the initiative for most of the policies, he frequently lost control over their implementation. Local officials and groups were too enthusiastic about carrying out orders, the central authority had to constantly apply the brakes. As a result, chaos occurred. The centre therefore had to recreate the initial momentum. It is seen as a “violent swing in the pendulum” (Stephen J Lee) as local interests interpreted central policies in the most favourable way, causing the centre to take corrective action. In general Stalin’s political power was initially proactive, but became reactive in for major areas – the purges, the economy, Russia’s society and foreign policy.

The early view of Stalin labelled him as entirely responsible for the millions of people who died in the purges. Revised views, however, argue he may have certainly initiated it, but could he actually control it? Modern historians argue it may have gained momentum far beyond Stalin’s intention. These arguments are based on the fact that the local forces interpreted Stalin’s orders in their own way. Therefore, incidences of terror ebbed and flowed as Stalin attempted to regain initiative. Two historians that carried out a major investigation into the Soviet Purges are John Arch-Getty and Gábor Rittersporn. They accuse earlier historians of ignoring the evidence and accepting rumour and see the totalitarian model as convenient to Trotskyites and NATO, believing it is no less truthful than the original Soviet version. Traditional views on the economy have also been attacked by contemporary historians.

Stalin was seen by ‘traditional’ views as an economic genius, creating a master plan and using his overall power to control it’s path. Modern historians, however, take a different stance. Collectivisation of 1928 is seen to have been implemented too rapidly and unsystematically, with local officials and NKVD exceeding quotas, leading to their rebuking by Stalin. The brakes were applied once again. Stalin’s policy became more defensive and his second offensive had to be launched, but the whole economy was caught up in the purges. Just as with the purges, local managers of industry reinterpreted their instructions to fit their own or local interests. In general the economic changes put in place by Stalin were defective in both planning and execution. Alex Nove, and economic historian, investigated Stalin’s policies and noted how they fluctuated in reaction to problems rather than following a ‘master plan’ as originally thought. The views of society in Stalin’s Russia have also changed since Glasnost, resulting in a much different interpretation of Stalin’s regime.

Revisionist historians have noticed that Stalin did not reverse the radical Bolshevik trend as once thought. They condemn this view as too positive a perception. Changes put in place by the Bolsheviks were slowly fading after 1921 due to the introduction of NEP. Stalin attempted to revive radical policies in relation to the family and educations. He supported traditional society, traditional institutions and the revival of conservative education policies. The traditional view was that Stalin did so to increase his personal power by abusing the social divisions it would create. The revised view is Stalin was merely reacting to escape the consequences of plan that was failing, that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Modern social historians, such as Moshe Levin of the University of Pennsylvania, blame not only Stalin for the way Russian society was, but also the party, the government agencies as well as the Russian peasants themselves. Not only did the opening of the archives deduce early analyses of society to mere misinterpretations, but also those of foreign policy.

Stalin has been accused by recent historians for assisting the rise of Hitler up to 1933 when he finally realised he had helped create a monster he could not control. He sought security with the French by signing the Franco-Soviet Pact of 1935, which was later ruined by Stalin’s distaste for appeasement. He was therefore pushed towards the Nazi-Soviet Pact as the “climax of a series of adjustments and attempts to regain lost initiative.” (Stephen J Lee) Stalin’s actions, therefore, in all areas of ‘power’ were to compensate for mistakes and a loss of control.

In closing, after Gorbachev and Glasnost there was an explosion of social and particularly local Russian history revealed to the public. The totalitarian model is gradually being eroded away by analysis of this material, though it is still seen as useful to non-Russian republics and Russian anti-communists. The debate of whether or not Stalin was a totalitarian dictator will continue, as most sources released have yet to be studied. In my personal view, it appears Stalin’s Russia was not a totalitarian regime and just as incoherent as that of Hitler or Mussolini.



Grant, J.; Stalin and the Soviet Union (Addison Wesley Longman Limited 1998)

Lee, S.J.; Stalin and the Soviet Union (Routledge 1999)


‘Ruling the Totalitarian State: Leader, Army, Party’


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Terror was central to Stalin's rule - but it is impossible to terrorise a whole population. Terror and persuasion were different sides of the same coin. Many, many idealistic young Communists went off to build the new cities like Magnitogorsk, in the most terible conditions, totally voluntarily, to help build the exciting new society many really believed in.

Terror was mostly applied to the Party - not totally, it's true, and this is where Stalin differed from Lenin. Lenin used terror, but not as a rule on his own, whereas Stalin used it increasingly as he became more and more dominant.

Of course, revisionist historians argue that once started, it developed a life of its own, that the terror was 'driven from below' rather than by Stalin. Young people impatient to make the revolution work faster! Bur don't forget - in the 30s the west was in decline, or so it appeared. Communism appealed to many as an effective alternative. Persuasion and the 'cult of the individual' were, to my mind, at least as important as terror.

see the resource at: http://www.burntcakes.com/resources/resource_191_5.html

Edited by alf wilkinson
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The whole use of the words "terror", "totalitarianism", "tyranny" - I call them the three Trotskyite Tees - suggests a loaded, one-sided and propagandised world-view created by years of 'Cold War' brainwashing.

Insane figures of 20 million, 60 million, 100 million and so on which have never been proven and have simply been accepted by so-called 'left wing' academics and right-wing commentators alike make any further talk redundant.

Read this:


"Lies Concerning the History of the Soviet Union" by Mario Sousa.

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