Was Stalin a totalitarian ruler?

The factors which allowed Stalin to gain power:

• Stalin's manipulative abilities

For example, Stalin attacked Trotsky’s decision to refuse the position of deputy chairman, claiming it was because he planned to take Lenin’s place instead. Later, following the death of Lenin, whilst Trotsky was away recovering from illness, he received a telegram from Stalin notifying him of Lenin’s death. Stalin deliberately provided him with the wrong date of the funeral and told him he would be unable to make it back in time. This manipulation allowed the Triumvirs to present themselves as Lenin’s successors in the absence of Trotsky.

• Lenin's premature death

Stalin used Lenin’s death and legacy to help his rise to power by presenting himself as Lenin’s loyal successor who would continue his legacy and carry out his aims and mission.

The picture shows (from left to right):Anna Ulyanova (Lenin's sister, painted from the back), unknown (in half profile), Zinoviev, Kamenev, Krupskaya (Lenin's wife, at the head), Dzerzhinsky, Stalin, Kalinin, unknown, Rykov, Rudztak (in profile), Yenukidze (foreground in profile), Bukharin (in the background) and Kamenev (in the foreground).*Image from Wikimedia Commons, from which the description was translated from Russian to English.

• Stalin's ability to remove his political opponents

The Great Purge that he embarked on was primarily an effort by Stalin to eliminate challenges from past and potential opposition groups, including the left-wing leader Leon Trotsky, his supporters, and the right-wing leader, Nikolai Bukharin, and his supporters. He convicted Trotsky, Bukharin, and other opposition during show trials, leading to their deportation, arrest and eventual executions or assassinations.

(Above) The Second Moscow Show Trials (23rd–30th January 1937.

• The weakness and ineffectiveness of Stalin's political opponents

For example, due to Stalin’s superiority and Trotsky’s weakness, he was able to remove the Left Opposition from influential positions and expand his supporters in the Central Committee, with the support of Bukharin initially. Then, in late 1924, Stalin took actions to reduce the influence of Kamenev and Zinoviev, removing their supporters from posts of influence. He had the superior power to demote Kamenev to a candidate member and force Zinoviev to hand over his position as leader of the Leningrad party to another of Stalin’s supporters— Kirov. Stalin was also able to influence to remove the weak Zinoviev from the Politburo, leaving Trotsky the only one left who opposed Stalin. Stalin was much stronger than his opponents and was able to force Zinoviev and Kamenev, and the thousands of oppositionists to announce that their views and criticisms of Stalin and the party had been wrong.

• Stalin's position as General Secretary

His role in the government as General Secretary was a fundamental factor in his rise to power as he had the power to appoint and dismiss key communist officials, and used this to his advantage, appointing his friends and supporters to key positions.

Stalin’s political policies over the course of his rule

• Stalin aimed to remove opposition from within the government.

He achieved this through removing opponents in the power struggle, the Great Purge of 1936 (during which he massacred political opponents within the Communist party) and the Moscow Show Trials in 1936, during which he publically showcased the strength of the regime, using it as a deterrence to prevent others from disobeying his rule.

• Stalin aimed to suppress opposing ideologies.

He did this by removing the Left Opposition and Right Opposition during the earlier stages of his rule.

• Stalin aimed to establish absolute control over the Communist party.

He did this in several ways, namely replacing the regional secretaries and governors, banning the Women's branch of the Communist party and preventing resistance within the government. He also did it through the Lenin Enrollment in 1925, during which many supporters of Stalin and believers of Stalinism joined the party. Moreover, the Soviet Union adopted a new constitution in 1936, known as the Stalin Constitution. In practice, it asserted the leading role of the Bolshevik Party and legally cemented the General Secretary’s control over the party. This allowed Stalin to remove all opposition to his rule from within the party, further cement communism as the national ideology, and establish him as Lenin’s successor.

Stalin’s economic policies over the course of his rule

• Stalin aimed to increase the productivity of agriculture and grain exports with modernization and end private ownership. 

This culminated in the Great Break of 1928 and 29. This was a sharp change in the economic policy of the USSR from 1928 to 1929 as Lenin’s New Economic Policy was abandoned in favour of confiscating private land in 1928 collectivisation in 1929, industrialisation and the beginning of a cultural revolution. However, these policies in turn resulted in food shortages in 1928, a massive famine in 1930 and another famine from 1932-1933, which led to the deaths of 10 million people due to starvation. Additionally, by 1939 almost all agricultural land was organised into collectives, with 95.6% of farmsteads collectivised by then. Concurrently, grain collection rose from 10.8m tons in 1928 to 22.8m tons in 1931.

• Stalin aimed to increase industrialisation.

With this, he abolished the New Economic Policy, which included "free market and capitalism, both subject to state control" and implemented a series of Five-Year Plans; the first from 1928 to 1932, the second from 1933 to 1937, and the third beginning in 1938, before it was interrupted by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. These plans caused some social discontent, including riots and resilience towards the government which was quickly repressed. Moreover, they actually failed to meet their targeted production figures all but once. Despite this element of failure, by 1938, the USSR had overtaken Britain and Germany in industrial output and annual industrial growth was 12%-13% during the Third 5-Year Plan, as they prepared for war.

(Above) Soviet Collectivisation

An image of starving peasants in Holomodor,  also known as the Terror-Famine. Since 2006, 16 countries (including Ukraine) have recognised Holomodor as a genocide against the Ukrainian people perpetrated by the USSR.

Stalin’s social policies over the course of his rule

• Stalin aimed to unify the Soviet people under the ideals of Bolshevism. 

A key belief of Bolshevism was anti-religion. In 1925 the government founded the League of Militant Atheists to intensify the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church. Some anti-religious youth groups were also formed, including the Komsomol, the Young Pioneers and the League of the Militant Godless and also the Museums of Scientific Atheism, Workers' Evening Universities of Atheism under the auspices of Trade Unions, and others were formed. These groups all worked towards exterminating religion and promoting atheism in the Soviet Union. With this, In the period between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox Churches in the Russian Republic fell from 29,584 to less than 500, whilst more than 85,000 Orthodox priests were shot in 1937 alone. By 1941, only one-twelfth of the Russian Orthodox Church priests were left functioning in their parishes and only 500 churches remained open out of the approximately 54,000 that existed before the First World War.

• Stalin aimed to indoctrinate the younger generation to become reputable leaders and contributors to Bolshevik society. 

Aside from the anti-religious youth organisations, Soviet anti-capitalist and heavily propaganda-based education was made compulsory for at least ten years, with every child entitled to a free 9-month education programme. A new curriculum was created in 1935, exaggerating the importance of the Communists, Stalin’s role in the October Revolution, and including other elements of propaganda. Meanwhile, the youths of the movement, Komsomol, which I mentioned earlier, took a loyalty pledge to Stalin. It had 10 million members by 1940. It was basically the Soviet version of Hitler Youth as it was used for propaganda and to indoctrinate the workers of the future. (See page 'How did Stalin establish a cult of personality?')

• Stalin aimed to indoctrinate the entire Soviet population into obeying his rule

Ubiquitous propaganda was implemented throughout the country to promote Stalin’s image as the god-like saviour and leader of the USSR. The Department of Agitation and Propaganda, often shortened to Agitprop, was largely responsible for creating the propaganda of the Soviet government. (See page 'How did Stalin establish a cult of personality?')

• Stalin aimed to increase the birth rate of the USSR. 

Under Lenin, marriage laws were liberal and very flexible. However, this caused the highest divorce rate in Europe in 1920, with 70% of these divorces initiated by men as they could easily abandon women if they had an unwanted pregnancy. In fact, reports of young men registering many short-lived marriages were prevalent, with numbers as high as 15 marriages! However, Stalin wished to encourage the mass procreation of babies and discourage abortions and divorce. The easy divorce policies were abolished in 1927. However, one of the issues that came with this was that divorced couples often still lived together (because of the high cost of living and lack of housing availability) and this caused a rise in reports of rape and domestic violence.

From 1910 to 1920, the total fertility rate dropped from 7.18 to 5.22. During Stalin’s encouragement of procreation, the total fertility rate increased to 6.36 by 1930, showing that his policies were somewhat successful. However, likely due to industrialisation, a high cost of living and a lack of housing, the total fertility rate dropped back to 4.49 by 1935, before a slight increase to 4.73 in 1940. 

How far was Stalin a totalitarian ruler?

Much of what he did had been started by Lenin and much of that followed from the autocracy of the Tsars. There was a tradition of authoritarianism already ingrained in Soviet society– but Stalin developed it to a large extent. It could even be argued that he changed the very nature of totalitarianism. Stalin’s ability to establish a pinnacle of autocracy within the entire political body was a fundamental aspect that proved he was able to create a completely totalitarian rule and society. Stalin’s rampant use of repressive measures to establish absolute control largely showed that he had created a totalitarian rule. Overall, Stalin’s absolute control of the entirety of society proves that he had successfully established totalitarian rule.

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