How did Stalin use repression
to gain absolute power?

By late 1934, Stalin had all but eliminated potential opposition to his leadership, and consolidated his power as party leader and leader of the state. Despite this, he continued to purge ordinary members of the party and terrorise the Soviet people with extensive arrests and executions.

The Great Terror

The Great Terror was sparked by the murder of Sergei Kirov on December 1, 1934. He was a full member of the ruling political bureau, leader of the Leningrad party apparatus, and a prominent member of the ruling elite. He gained popularity for his public speaking ability and advocacy for workers’ welfare in Leningrad. Some party members had even secretly proposed to him that he replace Stalin as general secretary.

Although it is unlikely that Kirov presented a threat to Stalin’s political dominance, he did disagree with some of Stalin's policies, leading Stalin to doubt his, and other party members’ allegiance. Hence, as evidence shows, Stalin and the NKVD planned out Kirov’s assassination by removing key security personnel, allowing Leonid Nikolaev to enter the Smolny Institute offices and shoot Kirov in the back of the neck.

Although there is significant evidence that Stalin had a role in Kirov’s assassination, he used the murder to his advantage, introducing strict laws against political crimes and conducting a witch-hunt for Nikolaev’s co-conspirators, during which he was able to spread terror throughout the Soviet Union, stabilising his rule, through the murder of millions of innocent citizens and party members during the Great Terror.

During the Great Terror, or what is known as the Great Purge, or Yezhovshchina, well-known “show trials” took place, including the Moscow Trials, which led to the aforementioned executions of Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, and further executions of Tomsky, Rykov and the Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army and 7 leading generals. The Great Terror peaked in 1937 and 1938 when 20 million innocent Soviet citizens were deported to labour camps and prisons, where approximately half of them died. Politicians and ordinary citizens lived in fear, while party members who were loyal to Stalin were rewarded with new flats, jobs, holidays and other benefits.

Following the Great Terror, everyone was so afraid of Stalin, that mass arrests and repression were no longer necessary, as everyone was completely submissive to his rule. Joseph Stalin ruled as the absolute dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until his sudden and unexpected death in March 1953.

Joseph Stalin - Former Premier of the Soviet Union
(Above) Sergei Kirov
(Above) The Second Moscow Show Trials (23rd–30th January 1937.
(Above) Taken in 1925, Stalin (on the left) is pictured with Rykov, Kamanev and Zinoviev. All three men were shot after being convicted of various crimes during the Show Trials.

Why did Stalin use such harsh forms of repression and violence?

• Issues within the country

Stalin’s primary goal in inter-war Russia was the achievement of Socialism in One Country, which was restricted by its technical and economic backwardness. When Kamenev and Zinoviev stated their view that Soviet Russia "cannot cope with the internal difficulties unless an international revolution happens”, Stalin saw their views as a lack of faith in the Soviet “working class and the peasant masses” and a departure from the Leninist position. He resorted to the use of violence and repression to achieve his goals when faced with opposition from within the party.

Fear of War

Another critical reason for Stalin's use of repression and violence was the urgency sparked by the fear of war; with both the threat of Japan and Nazi Germany. Stalin believed that Russia was threatened by both powers from the East and the West. Japan presents itself as a threat due to its increasing hostility to neighbouring countries, such as in Manchuria 1931-33. Meanwhile, with its anti-communist nature, Germany was also becoming a threat to Russia’s national safety. Hitler’s talks of peace were not taken at face value by Stalin due to Hitler's expansionist policy of Lebensraum, and threats against Soviet Russia and France. Stalin perceived peace in Europe as unstable. Dangers from the far east may come as far as Europe, while there was also a threat within Europe itself. Therefore, Stalin resorted to repression and terror to take control of Russia’s internal difficulties. The country needed to be internally stabilised with the possibility of a war.

Paranoia and a Fear of Betrayal

According to the author, Helena Sheehan, Stalin was deeply affected when his wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, committed suicide in 1932, and his style of ruling became much more antagonistic and revengeful. Stalin became insecure and desired to seek absolute control through repressive measures. Stalin formed a close relationship with Bukharin, even asking to change apartments with him as the memory of his wife was too painful. According to Sheehan, Stalin was "jealous of his intellectual acuity and all round popularity and vengeful against any alternative to his absolute authority". Hence, Bukharin was arrested on false charges, while Stalin fabricated allegations against him. Before his false confession, Bukharin underwent severe torture and intimidation.

In conclusion, Stalin used repression as a tool to strike fear into the population of the USSR, ensuring obedience, and gaining absolute power by removing the possibility of opposition from party members.