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Stalin and Stalinism

Abstract and Keywords

If Stalin was the supremely powerful dictator of popular renown, then why did he feel the need to persecute so many Soviet citizens? This chapter draws on recently released archives, including Stalin’s personal papers, to reassess not only the leader’s fears and ambitions but also the nature of the Stalinist order. Covering the period from Lenin’s death to 1953, it offers fresh perspectives on Stalin’s rise to power; on his ‘cult of personality’; on the concentration of political power in the hands of a narrow elite; and on the operations of the Soviet secret police and intelligence services. Presented with misleading intelligence, Stalin and other Soviet leaders persistently misinterpreted both internal and external challenges to their rule and to the revolution as a whole. Stalin’s drive to accumulate power and to smash resistance was intensified by a misperception of events.

Keywords: Stalinism, terror, Bolshevik Party, political police, political violence, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kirov

The popular image of Joseph Stalin is of a supremely powerful dictator who incited acts of extraordinary violence against his own people. The opening of the archives has only reinforced this image, and yet, it begs the question why, if he was so powerful, did he feel the need to place under surveillance arrest, execute or exile to the Gulag so many Soviet citizens? Historians have offered a great variety of answers over the years. Some have portrayed Stalin as insecure and driven by a thirst for power, determined to destroy everyone who stood between him and total control of the Soviet state.1 Others have argued that the revolution demanded total change, and total change provoked a resistance that Stalin thought he could only overcome through force of violence.2 What do the archives tell us? They confirm some existing images of the dictator, but they also provide some fundamental new perspectives on Stalin and Stalinism. Stalin’s personal archive contains much of the material that Stalin read and wrote from day to day. These documents provide a much clearer and detailed picture of Stalin’s perceptions and motivations, of his fears and ambitions. The new material confirms that Stalin sought to build a personal dictatorship, and that he perceived that violence was necessary to overcome resistance to revolutionary change. But it also shows that Stalin and other Soviet leaders persistently misinterpreted the challenges to their rule and the threats to the revolution. Stalin’s drive to accumulate power and to smash resistance was intensified by a misperception of events.

Formative Experiences

Violence was in the genetic makeup of Bolshevism. In Lenin’s thought, as in Marx’s, it was taken as given that the proletarian revolution could only be attained by recourse to violence. Above all, Lenin demanded of Bolsheviks ruthlessness in the face of those who opposed the revolution and it is not difficult to see why. They were a small group with big ambitions and many enemies, both within Russia and abroad. In 1917, they were a small but rapidly growing group of committed revolutionaries intent on seizing power in the name of the proletariat—itself a relatively small group in Russian society. The extraordinary growth of the Bolshevik Party was such that the level of commitment to revolutionary ideals was bound to be diluted, and worse, there was an ever present danger that the Party was being infiltrated by its enemies. The Tsarist secret police had thoroughly infiltrated the revolutionary movements before 1917, and there was every reason for Bolshevik leaders to believe that the Party would be attacked from within.

It is no wonder that summary justice was the order of the day. Any word or deed that gave a whiff of disloyalty could be punished with death. The agents of the secret police (Cheka or Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counter-revolution and Sabotage), were meant to be the ‘best Bolsheviks’, able to identify an enemy simply by looking him or her in the eye. They were not required to investigate and provide material evidence of counter-revolutionary crimes. Suspicion justified execution. Lenin demanded utter ruthlessness of his commanders and he got it, in part because committing acts of revolutionary violence was the most effective way to demonstrate one’s loyalty to the revolution. The struggle was extremely bloody. Tens of millions died in the civil war. Violence had bred violence. White and Red terror fed one upon the other. Year upon year of war, revolution and civil war had desensitized participants to bloodshed. But there was something inherent in Bolshevism that deepened the violence. As students of revolution, the Bolsheviks were deeply conscious that in France, the revolution ended when the Terror ended. Terror itself was revolutionary.3

The Bolsheviks won the civil war, but did not emerge from it feeling especially secure. They continued to see multiple threats on the horizon. The million-strong White armies withdrew into Soviet borderlands and remained at arms. They were ready to join a new intervention and were looking for opportunities to strike at the new regime. Foreign forces had also withdrawn, tired of war and unable to continue to fight in the face of domestic opposition, but anti-communist rhetoric in the ‘capitalist world’ remained extremely strong particularly in the light of communist uprisings in Europe. Soviet leaders naturally feared that a new assault could begin again at any time, particularly as European leaders were anxious to put a decisive end to revolutionary uprisings at home. The Bolsheviks directed the agencies gathering foreign intelligence (principally the Foreign Department of the Cheka/OGPU, military intelligence and the Peoples’ Commissariat of Foreign Affairs) first and foremost to identify threats to Soviet security. The agencies subsequently collected an impressive weight of circumstantial evidence supporting their fears.

They interpreted close official French contact with White leaders as an effort to prepare for war, and in the meantime to support anti-Soviet White terrorism. French diplomatic efforts to build the ‘Little Entente’ were directed against Germany, but Soviet agencies saw this alliance of states along its border—where much of the remaining White armies were stationed—as furthering those preparations. They were convinced that the French and British were behind the Polish invasion in 1920, and that British efforts to contain the spread of communism in Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan and China were actually attempts to prepare more fronts for a new intervention. Diplomatic and military contacts of the major ‘capitalist’ powers with counterparts in states on the Soviet periphery were observed and reported to Bolshevik leaders. The intelligence painted a compelling picture of a broad conspiracy to overthrow the new regime, but it was almost entirely wrong. Many prominent figures in Europe would have supported a new war against the Soviet Union, but they were in a decisive minority, and the diplomatic and military meetings that Soviet intelligence agencies observed were mainly about dealing with the threat from Germany, not the Soviets. The intelligence agencies did little to fight the bias built into their instructions. Indeed, most intelligence gatherers, and Soviet leaders in turn, remained convinced that the hostilities of the civil war could be renewed at any time.4

The domestic scene in the aftermath of civil war was no less worrying. The economy was in a parlous state. Much of the working class naturally had been attracted to the idea of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, but the Bolsheviks promised much more than they could deliver. In the early 1920s, many workers were wary of the new order, prone to strikes and work stoppages to express their discontent. The peasantry emerged from the civil war deeply angered by grain requisitioning that had disrupted production and fuelled famine. Peasant uprisings threatened to turn into full-scale rebellion. Such an outcome would have been catastrophic given that the Red Army, itself made up largely of peasants, was losing its coherence in the face of mutinies and desertion. At the same time, the Party was weakened by corruption and badly divided about what to do next.

It is no wonder in this context that the regime established a system of mass surveillance, not only to map the state of popular opinion but also to eliminate those who might incite and organize discontent with the regime.5 As with the foreign intelligence agencies, those charged with collecting domestic intelligence were told to prioritize reporting on threats to the regime. Consequently, the nature and dynamics of popular support and acquiescence went largely unanalysed. Reports on general discontent filled volumes too large to digest, but reports of sabotage, terrorist acts and counter-revolutionary conspiracies, often exaggerated and taken out of context, regularly crossed the desks of Soviet leaders. There was much in the domestic situation to worry Soviet leaders. There almost certainly were counter-revolutionary conspiracies and more genuine domestic threats to the regime than came from abroad, but the system of intelligence gathering left them more worried than they need have been.

Despite, or perhaps because of this sense of threat, Lenin resolved to avoid politics of confrontation, and to reduce social tension with an end to grain requisitioning, an end to the militarization of labour in the factories, a reduction of the red terror, a limited democratization and the introduction of the quasi-capitalist New Economic Policy. The approach met with clear successes. The threat of peasant rebellion receded and agricultural productivity rose. The economy began to recover and workers returned to the factories in great numbers. But when Lenin died, the Party lost its major unifying force. A struggle to succeed him was inevitable and Lenin himself had gloomily anticipated it. The battle raged through the second half of the 1920s, and poisoned what had already been tense relations among Lenin’s chief lieutenants. By the 1930s, it created a new worry for Lenin’s eventual successor, Stalin. Would the former ‘oppositions’ serve his new order, or work to undermine it on the sly? How many leading Party officials secretly supported the opposition?

The Rise of Stalin and the Great Break

Stalin’s rise to power has long been misunderstood in several ways. While Stalin’s ambition to succeed Lenin is beyond question, until recently, historians tended to accept the characterization of Stalin presented by his opponents, of a ‘grey blur’, a ‘mediocrity’. Stalin had every reason to stake a claim as Lenin’s successor. He was an effective administrator much valued by Lenin. Recent work has corrected earlier views of Stalin as a faceless bureaucrat lacking political ideas of his own,6 but other myths of Stalin’s rise continue to circulate. Perhaps the most significant of these is the notion that as General Secretary Stalin used his responsibility for Party appointments to stack the apparat with people personally loyal to him. The archives of the Secretariat, open since the early 1990s, show that the appointments process was largely impersonal, and not a basis for building a reliable network of ‘clients’. But the General Secretary did have regular contact with the scores of leading Party officials who, as members of the Central Committee, had formal responsibility for electing (and removing) members of the Politburo. Stalin was thus in a strong position to understand their wants and needs, but through the leadership struggle, this upper tier of Party officialdom were relatively free agents.7

As such, the struggle to succeed Lenin was largely a struggle to gain the support of Party members. It contained an element of a democratic election in the importance of the presentation of policies designed to appeal to specific constituencies. However, it was not entirely like an election, because as long as Stalin retained his position at the head of the Politburo leadership, he had certain extraordinary powers. He had a strong influence over the editorial policy of the press. He could direct the Party Control Commissions and political police to monitor the Oppositions in search of ‘anti-Party’ conduct. In another sense, the struggle was explicitly anti-democratic. The Politburo leaders were not the only ones grasping for power. At all levels of the Party and state apparatus, officials fought for the top posts, and democracy within the Party, to the extent that it existed, was perceived by those in positions of power as perpetuating ‘skloki’ as such struggles were known. When Stalin proposed a ‘retreat’ from Party democracy, and strengthened the positions of those already in positions of power, the response was overwhelmingly positive—except from Stalin’s opponents, who immediately understood that such a measure would further stifle their ability to challenge him.8

As the leaders of the United Opposition were finally purged, the Party was moving to the left, increasingly uncomfortable with New Economic Policy (NEP)compromises. There was a growing confidence that the planned economy would prove its superiority to the quasi-capitalist order of the NEP. Industrial regions desperate for the new investment it promised and agricultural regions interested in taking control of the grain supply away from the ‘kulak’. Heightened international tensions, culminating in the severance of diplomatic relations with Great Britain and the war scare of 1927, convinced many that there was no choice but to accelerate the modernization of the country. As the projected tempos of the First Five-Year Plan increased, and ever more punitive action taken against the ‘kulak’ (or, more concretely, those who resisted Soviet policy in the countryside), Nikolai Bukharin and those around him expressed their concern that social, political and economic stability were being put at risk. Stalin seemed once again to have the measure of Party opinion. His calls for iron unity in the Party and the retreat from Party democracy continued to have a resonance in the Party. Bukharin and his supporters were labelled ‘cowards’ and ‘deviationists’, and left to twist in the wind. At the same time, it was becoming ever clearer that to express doubts about the Party line would not further a career in the Party. Stalin could not be certain how many leading officials supported him only because they were afraid to speak out.

Stalin’s own explanation of his rise to power is instructive. Almost two decades after he had defeated his main rivals, Stalin recounted to his inner circle how in 1927, 720,000 rank and file members of the Party voted in favour of the ‘Central Committee line’ which he had authored. Between four and six thousand voted for Trotsky, and a further 20,000 abstained. Trotsky’s mistake, Stalin noted, was in focusing his attention on winning over the Central Committee (the group of leading officials who elected the Politburo according to Party rules). What is interesting in Stalin’s comments is what is left unsaid. His praise of the Party masses would seem to hint at a softness in his support in the highest echelons of the Party. 9

Stalin was on stronger ground in his struggle against Bukharin than he had been against Trotsky and the United Opposition. In 1928 and 1929, Bukharin warned about moving ahead too fast. He warned that the increasing pace of industrialization, and extraordinary measures in the countryside would bring economic crisis and social instability. But as Stalin’s policies—the ‘Central Committee line’—continued to bring impressive results, Bukharin’s group looked exactly as Stalin portrayed them: like ‘cowards’ and ‘deviationists’. But the crises Bukharin had predicted came to pass only months after he had been removed from the Politburo. In early 1930, peasant uprisings against wholesale collectivization forced the regime to retreat. The ever more ambitious plan targets began to sow confusion rather than spur achievement. The echoes of Bukharin’s warnings must have hung heavily in the air. How many senior Party members remembered, but dared not express them?

Following the rapid advance of collectivization in the main grain growing regions, and before the new order had a chance to bed down, the centre set high grain collection targets. Many local officials warned that they were unrealistic. Stalin tended to interpret such resistance as un-Bolshevik, as pandering to peasant self-interest, and insisted that targets be met. The situation of regional officials was impossible, and thousands of them were purged for their ‘inaction’. Stalin had won the struggle for the grain supply, though he knew he had paid a high price, not only in terms of the loss of life, but also in terms of the enduring hostility of the peasantry to the new order, and the loss of enthusiasm for his leadership among senior officials responsible for agriculture and the agricultural regions.10

The situation in industry was less severe, but not dissimilar. The initial enthusiasm for the Great Break among workers waned as it became clear that production demands were increasing even as incomes stagnated. This was not surprising given that the regime was funding the expansion of industry in large part by suppressing workers’ living standards. Labour unrest, including strikes and slowdowns, was not uncommon in spite of the regime’s efforts to enforce labour discipline.11 Production targets were grossly exaggerated, but the centre was almost completely closed to any suggestion that they could not be met. Managers and specialists ran grave risks if they tried to have plans reduced, but they also risked losing their jobs or worse if they failed to meet targets. Managers had little choice but to mislead the centre in order to survive. They underestimated capacity, overestimated their need for inputs in annual plans. They traded surpluses on a growing grey market and deliberately degraded quality or delivered unfinished products in order to create an impression of plan fulfilment.12 The Second Five-Year-Plan was somewhat more moderate in its demands, but the largely false perception of ‘moderation’ hardened the regime’s unwillingness to accept that failures and shortcomings in industrial production were caused by the system itself. More worryingly, those who believed implicitly in the superiority of the Soviet economic system were most likely to blame failures on ‘wreckers’ and ‘saboteurs’, on the nefarious activities of ‘Leftists’ (who didn’t believe that the construction of Socialism in One Country was possible) and ‘Rightists’ (who wanted to slow the rate of construction). While it was the pressures of plan fulfilment that led to the bulk of accidents, train crashes, fires, corrupt practices and so on, the investigations of the political police into such matters at no stage blamed the shortcomings of the economic system. On the contrary, the resultant reports tended to reinforce the impression of central leaders that the regime had been infiltrated by ‘counter-revolutionary elements’ bent on undermining the plan and destabilizing the regime.13

As absurd as this sounds, it made a lot of sense to Soviet leaders in the early 1930s. Stalin was convinced that the onset of the Great Depression increased the danger of anti-Soviet aggression. Following the logic of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, he argued that the depression was a crisis of overproduction that would intensify conflicts over markets and sources of primary production. A war against the Soviet Union would solve many of the capitalists’ problems, not least by providing new markets for excess production and by getting rid of the evil of communism exacerbating class tension at home.14 Political events in Europe reinforced the view. The collapse of the Grand Coalition in Weimar Germany brought a sharp shift of politics to the right under Heinrich Bruning and the onset of emergency rule. They interpreted the rise of the Lapua movement and the fall of the Social Democratic Government of Finland in June 1930 as a fascist coup.15 They had similar concerns about the rise of the far right in Austria and Romania.16 According to the Party journal Bolshevik, the Depression was deepening the dependence of Poland, Finland and the Baltic states on the imperialist powers and making them a solid base for their aggressive plans against the USSR.17

Meanwhile OGPU investigations into the subversive activities of the capitalist states produced a steady stream of ‘evidence’ suggesting that they remained dedicated to destabilizing the Soviet borderlands and undermining the First Five-Year-Plan. In 1931 alone, the OGPU arrested 15,670 people for terrorist activity, much of which they believed to have been sponsored by foreign powers preparing the ground for invasion.18 Somewhat earlier, in September 1930, OGPU boss Viacheslav Menzhinskii had informed Stalin of British espionage and economic sabotage through the Metro-Vickers Company. Stalin took a great interest in the transcripts of interrogations of the defendants in the case of the so-called Industrial Party. In particular, Stalin latched onto the testimony of Professor Leonid Ramzin, to the effect that a Franco-Polish-Romanian army was preparing to invade the USSR.19 Stalin wanted to use such information to forestall an invasion, but he soon came to believe that he was being overtaken by the course of events. On 18 September 1931, the Japanese launched an invasion of Manchuria. Stalin was convinced that they were preparing the ground for an invasion of the USSR.20

His suspicions were confirmed by intelligence he received at the end of February 1932. A letter from Yukio Kasahara (the Japanese military attaché to the General Staff in Tokyo), intercepted by the OGPU, advocated a war against the USSR and the annexation of the Soviet Far East and Western Siberia. Kasahara observed that ‘the countries on Soviet western borders (ie at a minimum Poland and Romania) are in a position to act with us’. He insisted that France would make every effort to support them in the event of war, and that White groups and other anti-Soviet forces both inside and outside the Soviet Union could be brought to bear. He advocated the strengthening of Japanese contacts with anti-Soviet forces to that end.21 On the other side of the USSR, the Poles were trying their best to do the same. At the height of the famine in Ukraine, they were sending their agents across the border in an effort to encourage peasant rebellion. Stalin took this very seriously, and warned Kaganovich that ‘we may lose Ukraine’.22

In retrospect, we can see that Stalin’s sense of the imminent threat to Soviet power was exaggerated by the one-sided intelligence he was receiving. Contrary to Stalin’s belief, the Soviet Union was not facing a foreign invasion in the early 1930s. His other concerns, however, were closer to the mark: the struggle with the peasantry had generated a deep and lasting hostility to the regime; the support of the working class was wavering in the face of high output norms and stagnating pay; his support among both senior officials and the rank and file was shaken by the persistent crises, extraordinary demands and violence of the period.

Dictatorship and Terror

The rising social and political tensions intensified the fear of war. The sense of imminent threat to the revolution drove Stalin to consolidate his personal dictatorship. Political decision-making in the decade after the revolution had been characterized by a high level of consultation and discussion within the upper echelons of the Party. That all but disappeared by the middle of the 1930s. Party Congresses and the Central Committee met ever more rarely. By the second half of the 1930s, even the Politburo no longer held its weekly meetings.23 Power shifted from regular, formal institutions to Stalin personally. Key decisions were made in informal meetings at his dacha or in his Kremlin office. ‘Consultation’ continued to take place, as we can see from Stalin’s very full calendar of appointments, but he rarely invited even senior officials to help shape decisions. His word had become law. He had become something more than a mere political leader, an almost god-like figure intimidating even to his inner circle. His immense power and authority were reinforced by a ‘cult of personality’ promoted in all the media.

Stalin accumulated almost unparalleled power out of a sense of insecurity, a sense that not only his position, but also the revolution itself was under threat, but the process was not inevitable or linear in the way it unfolded. In the early 1930s, at the height of the confrontation with the peasantry, amidst the crises of the industrial economy, and the social and political tensions they generated, Stalin accepted the necessity of responding to ‘signals from below’. As with Lenin and the introduction of NEP, Stalin opted for a policy of conciliation. Grain collection targets were lowered. Peasants were granted ‘private plots’ and the right to sell what they produced on them. Projections of industrial growth were also somewhat reduced. But perhaps most significantly, Stalin accepted the need to restrain the apparatus of state repression. The number of arrests for counter-revolutionary crimes decreased sharply in 1932 and again in 1933, and the Commissariat of Justice finally gained some ground in their long-standing struggle to restrain the political police and impose elementary standards of justice.24

The potential of this relaxation of tensions was never realized. On 1 December 1934, Politburo member Sergei Kirov was assassinated. The assassination convinced Stalin that he had become complacent about the seriousness of the threats facing the regime. He immediately lifted the curbs on the arbitrary powers of the political police and set in train a series of investigations, the results of which frightened the regime to its core. Stalin directed the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) – which took over responsibility for the political police from the Joint State Administration (OGPU) in 1934 --to ‘look for the perpetrators among the Zinovievites’.25 One might have expected that Stalin would have assumed that the assassin, Leonid Nikolaev, was an agent of a foreign power. Indeed in the days after the assassination, his NKVD interrogators forced him to admit that he had visited the Latvian and German embassies in the summer and autumn of 1934 and had received an undisclosed sum of Deutschmarks from the latter, but Stalin saw the foreign connections as a subplot in a larger conspiracy against him. At the centre of that imagined plot were the former oppositions.

From the late 1920s, the political police had been instructed to put known oppositionists under surveillance and report on any conspiratorial activity. The reports that followed convinced Stalin that his rivals had never given up their intention to unseat him. Only days after the members of the United Opposition had been expelled from the Central Committee, OGPU chairman, Viacheslav Menzhinskii warned Stalin that unnamed members of the group planned to murder Soviet leaders in a coup d’etat timed to coincide with the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the revolution in November 1927. He observed that Opposition propaganda in the Army was threatening to undermine its loyalty to the regime and that top secret information about activities and decisions at the highest levels was being leaked to foreign powers by the ‘Opposition and its agents’.26

We have little direct evidence of the work of the GPU ‘cells’ set up among oppositionists, but we know that GPU arrested hundreds of oppositionists in the course of 1928. The information Stalin received on the activities of oppositionists provoked him to write a further letter—a memorandum to the members of the Politburo—in which he argued that the Opposition had completed a transformation ‘from an underground anti-Party group into an underground anti-Soviet organisation’. The letter was later published as a Pravda editorial under the title ‘They Have Sunk to This’.27 Stalin had reason to believe that Trotsky had been able to control this subversive organization despite the effort to isolate him in Alma Ata, and so the decision was taken to expel him from the Soviet Union. Trotsky’s interviews in the Western press after his arrival in Turkey in February 1929, collected by the Soviet telegraph agency (TASS), immediately indicated that the fact of exile would have little effect. Western journalists, sensing a dramatic story, emphasized Trotsky’s assertions that he would maintain contact with his underground network in the USSR and the danger that his network posed to the Soviet leadership. The interviews and reports painted a picture of Trotsky’s substantial support in the Party, the Red Army, in foreign communist parties and hinted that Trotsky’s struggle against Stalin would have the support of capitalist governments.28

After that, Stalin tended to see all criticism of him from within the Party apparatus as inspired by, or somehow linked to the former oppositions. Of the criticisms he faced from S. I. Syrtsov and V. V. Lominadze, Stalin concluded that they were both building ‘factional groups’ in Moscow and the regions, with the aim of installing Rightists in power.29 When OGPU surveillance revealed that Nikolai Bukharin had continued to meet his ‘disciples’ (from the Institute of Red Professors) and discuss Stalin and current policy in disparaging terms, Stalin accused Bukharin of ‘cultivating terrorists among Right deviationists’.30 Further policy crises inevitably provoked conversations that caught the attention of the OGPU. The most prominent officials to be reported for this were A. P. Smirnov, N. B. Eismont and V. N. Tolmachev, all heads of major institutions, who met and discussed the problems of Soviet policy over vodka. OGPU qualified them as ‘counter-revolutionary’. At approximately the same time, M. N. Riutin, a member of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the National Economy (VSNKh), wrote a virulent critique of the regime in a tract calling among other things for Stalin’s dictatorship to be overthrown.31 This was rather more serious not only for its content, but because it was unclear who else was involved in drafting the document and who had read it. Zinoviev and Kamenev were summoned to the Central Control Commission to explain if they had any link to Riutin.32 In the aftermath of the ‘Riutin Affair’ many former left oppositionists were sent to jail or into exile.

When Kirov was assassinated, Stalin seems to have assumed that conspirators from among the Left opposition were still at large, and had changed their tactics from discussion to terrorist action.33 The NKVD investigation of the assassination dropped the ‘foreign agent’ theory not only because of Stalin’s instruction, but because already on 4 December, the ‘Zinovievite’ approach was proving productive. Nikolaev ‘confessed’ that his decision to assassinate Kirov had been influenced by Trotskyists in the Leningrad Party organization.34 Arrests soon spread to the Leningrad Komsomol, which had had strong ties to Zinoviev’s Leningrad opposition. Some 843 ‘former Zinovievites’ were arrested by the Leningrad NKVD alone in the ten weeks after the murder.35 From the first hours after the assassination, Stalin had lifted legal safeguards in this case and given the NKVD carte blanche in the conduct of the investigation. As ever, the conditions of the interrogations ensured that those arrested would denounce others and ever widen the scope of the inquiry. A picture of a widespread ‘Trotskyist-Zinovievite’ organization began to emerge with ‘centres’ in Moscow and Leningrad. By the end of December, the testimony of those under interrogation suggested that the Trotskyist-Zinovievite group calculated that the Stalin leadership would not be able to cope in the event of war against the USSR, and that in such an event, Kamenev and Zinoviev would inevitably come to power. After the trial of those supposedly directly involved in the murder, a further trial of those who had ‘inspired’ the murderers took place. It concluded that the ‘Leningrad counter-revolutionary Zinovievite group was ‘systematically cultivating a hatred of the Party leadership and particularly Stalin’ and bore a ‘moral and political responsibility for the Kirov murder’. 36

The ‘evidence’ of the NKVD investigation suggested to Stalin that Zinoviev and Kamenev were planning more serious crimes. In the weeks after the Kirov murder, Stalin had ordered a review of security in the Kremlin. This was entirely sensible given that the investigation in Leningrad had appeared to have uncovered a large number of ‘hostile elements’—not least Nikolaev—with access to Party institutions and, consequently, Party leaders. The review of Kremlin, undertaken by Nikolai Ezhov, revealed that security vetting had been lax. At first, the investigation only uncovered evidence of conversations (among cleaners, couriers and other minor personnel) critical of Soviet policy and of Stalin—the sort of private conversations that were taking place up and down the country. But in the now well established pattern of the NKVD arrests and interrogations, the investigation inevitably produced the appearance of a ‘Leftist’ conspiracy to assassinate Soviet leaders.37 Lev Kamenev was himself interrogated, and admitted that his brother had been in his flat at times when he and Zinoviev were having conversations critical of Soviet policy and of Stalin. He categorically denied any link to events in the Kremlin and any knowledge of the political views of his brother, but his protests were not entirely convincing. Yet again, Stalin was presented with circumstantial evidence that members of the Left Opposition were conspiring against his regime.

The spring of 1935 represented a sort of crossroads for Stalin. The NKVD chief Genrikh Iagoda was presiding over the continuing surveillance of former oppositionists combined with a massive ‘verification’ of Party cards intended to weed out Party members whose political loyalties were in any doubt. He believed that the Leftist underground was dangerous, but that NKVD counter-terrorism operations could contain it.38 But Nikolai Ezhov presented Stalin with a very different image of oppositionist activity. He sought to convince Stalin not only that the former oppositions were working together, but that they were closely tied to the capitalist powers bent on the destruction of Soviet power.

Stalin was open to the idea not least because the recent revelations of oppositionist conspiracy had coincided with a new war scare. Through the autumn of 1934, Soviet foreign intelligence sources were warning Stalin of an imminent invasion of Japanese forces from the East and German forces from the West.39 If capitalist governments and the former oppositions were both working to overthrow the Stalin regime, why should they not work together? Ezhov’s ‘breakthrough’ came with the arrest of V. P. Ol’berg, who had recently arrived in Gorky from Germany, on suspicion that he was an emissary of Trotsky. Within a month, Ol’berg ‘confessed’ to counter-revolutionary activity, and began to name scores of ‘co-conspirators’. Zinoviev, Kamenev, Trotsky and other prominent Left oppositionists were implicated as the leaders of a terrorist, counter-revolutionary organization. As the investigation progressed, ‘evidence’ of Trotsky’s links with fascist governments emerged. Ol’berg and others with links in Germany and to the Left opposition testified to the cooperation between Trotskyists and the Gestapo in the organization of acts of terrorism against Soviet leaders.40 Stalin demanded that the investigation should, as a matter of urgency, ‘expose and obliterate all Trotskyist forces, their organisational centres and connections’.41

The trial of the ‘Trotskyist-Zinovievite centre’ in August 1936 put the seal of Stalin’s approval on Ezhov’s investigations by making many (though by no means all) of the findings public. It brought with it a fresh wave of calls for vigilance, and new pressure on NKVD agents to ‘unmask’ hidden enemies of the regime and consequently, further revelations.42 However, in accepting Ezhov’s theory of a wider conspiracy, Stalin did not deliberately set in motion the orgy of political violence known as the ‘Great Terror’. Rather, the calls for vigilance began to ignite the tensions that pervaded Soviet society. In the industrial economy, where managers had chronically lied, cheated and subverted central directives in order to cope with the pressures of plan fulfilment, Party officials, enterprise directors and specialists began to denounce one another. Workers denounced the bosses who had demanded so much of them. In agriculture, kolkhoz workers denounced kolkhoz chairmen and other rural officials who had treated them like serfs. This was not simply a mass exercise in revenge seeking, though that certainly played a role. Rather, the Soviet public generally believed that the Soviet Union was full of counter-revolutionaries, spies and saboteurs. For years, Soviet propaganda, movies, newspapers and radio had told them as much. The industrial manager who failed to receive his inputs or had his funding cut could reasonably believe that wreckers were at fault. The worker who was told he could not join the Stakhanovite movement might feel justified in thinking his manager was an enemy of the regime.

Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that many Soviet citizens had a strong sense of their vulnerability to denunciation. Party and state officials the length and breadth of the country privately understood that central plans were unrealistic. Those indiscreet enough to share the thought were guilty, in the eyes of the regime, of holding ‘Trotskyite conversations’. Further hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens had hidden their class origins (links to aristocracy, ‘kulaks’, clergy, Whites, etc) in order to escape discrimination. Now they stood to be unmasked as ‘enemies of the people’. And when the denunciations came, those in this sort of situation could not convincingly deny that they were not ‘enemies of the people’. This, combined with the NKVD’s reckless disregard for material evidence meant that there was no limit to the conspiracies they could uncover and enemies they could unmask. Consequently, between 1936 and 1938, millions of Soviet citizens, from members of the Central Committee to illiterate peasants, were subject to arrest and exile, or summary execution.

From Terror to War

We know little about the process by which the political violence was curtailed. It had initially focused on the Party, state and military elite, and in its later stages, the bulk of the victims had been workers, peasants and national minorities. Stalin was aware of the negative effects mass arrests were having on the economy and the military. He was convinced that the civil war in Spain signalled the beginning of a wider conflict between the aggressive capitalist states and the communists. The Munich agreement in September 1938 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 deepened that conviction. Purging potentially disloyal elements from the political, economic and military leadership was necessary, but had to be restrained or the ability to fight a war would be undermined. Eliminating ‘socially harmful elements’, and national minorities with divided loyalties could be allowed to continue somewhat longer. But there is no evidence to suggest that Stalin ever concluded that the Terror had been a mistake. Indeed the strongest ‘anti-terror’ signal he gave was to accuse ‘enemies’ within the NKVD of having arrested innocent Soviet citizens. Stalin and some of his inner circle remained certain that the Terror had been necessary to protect the regime and the revolution.43

The German invasion in July 1941only hardened the characteristic traits of the Stalinist system—personal dictatorship and terror. Stalin’s grip on the levers of power was strengthened further still. He was named Supreme Commander of the armed forces, head of the Council of State Defense, Peoples’ Commissar for Defense, as well as head of the Government and Party. Stalin had greater control over the war effort than any other leader in the Second World War. His approach to military leadership was reminiscent of his approach to the first Five-Year-Plan. He asked his commanders to do more than they possibly could with the resources available to them. He refused to tolerate tactical retreat. His brutality was characteristic of the Terror. Commanders who fell short of his demands were removed, and many were shot. The counter-offensives he ordered cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and soldiers who shrank from them were shot or put in ‘penal battalions’ to be given the most dangerous missions.44

In its initial stages, Stalin clung single-mindedly to his belief that only such ruthlessness would save the revolution, but as the war progressed and particularly after the victory at Stalingrad, his perspective shifted. For over a decade, he had been worried that the enemies of the regime would unite to form a fifth column in the event of war. The invader found willing collaborators,45 but the overwhelming mass of the population showed an awesome dedication to a struggle that cost tens of millions of lives and took those who survived to the edge of human endurance. This profoundly impressed Stalin.46 For the first time, he could be sure that he and his regime enjoyed genuine, broad-based, popular support. It meant that the Terror had been successful, and that its work, in the main, was done. As the war progressed, he stepped back from his detailed involvement in frontline operations, and increasingly took the advice of his generals. He showed a willingness to leave the management of the economy to the experts. That trend did not end with the war. Stalin never again involved himself in the minutiae of political and economic decision-making as he had done in the 1930s.

He had raised the Soviet Union to the status of a superpower. Its position was sufficiently secure that he could relax his grip on power and restrain the political police. But not entirely: substantial threats to Soviet security remained. Stalin understood that the defeat of Nazi Germany would not end the confrontation between the forces of capitalism and communism. As Soviet troops marched towards Berlin, the leadership of the forces of anti-communism passed to the United States. Like Lenin before him, Stalin believed that the ‘capitalists’ would never make their peace with the Soviet regime. There was no reason to revise that opinion now, especially when Soviet communism was gaining in power and influence throughout the world. It would be necessary to re-build the shattered economy and reinforce Soviet military strength in anticipation of the next great military struggle. For that reason, Stalin continued to worry about internal enemies of the regime. A potential fifth column could not be allowed to re-emerge. As ever, he received regular reports from the political police not only on acts of overt opposition and collaboration, but also suspicions of wavering loyalty among certain groups. So while Stalin’s confidence in his support among officialdom and the population at large contributed to a drop in prosecutions for counter-revolutionary crimes, he ordered the deportation of entire ethnic groups suspected of collaboration, engaged in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign on the Soviet eastern borderlands and moved to isolate returning Soviet prisoners of war. He spearheaded a campaign against western, capitalist influences in Soviet culture, and forcefully gave notice when he perceived that leading officials were serving their own interests rather than those of the state.

While Stalin’s power remained undiminished, in the sense that no one could question or resist his interventions, his gradual withdrawal from day-to-day decision-making created the political space for a new order to take shape even before Stalin’s death.47 As he left his inner circle to carry on the affairs of state, they breathed new life into the formal institutions that had decayed under Stalin. Theirs was a more regular, bureaucratic, collective leadership. After Stalin’s death in March 1953, the extremes dictatorship and terror were tempered, but the essentials of the Stalinist order remained: not only the concentration of political power in a narrow elite, the planned economy and collectivized agriculture, but also in the perception of external threats. The essence of Stalin’s vision of the world lived on in his successors, and in some sense, the fear of enemies at home and abroad, and the perceived need to concentrate power to combat those threats, lives on in contemporary Russia.

Further Reading

Getty, J. Arch, and Oleg V. Naumov (eds), The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999)Find this resource:

    Gregory, Paul R (ed), Behind the Façade of Stalin’s Command Economy (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2001)Find this resource:

      Harris, James, ‘Stalin as General Secretary: The Appointments Process and the Nature of Stalin’s Power’ in Sarah Davies and James Harris (eds), Stalin: A New History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 63–82Find this resource:

        Harris, James, ‘Encircled by Enemies: Stalin’s Perceptions of the Capitalist World, 1918–1941’ Journal of Strategic Studies 30 (2007), 513–45Find this resource:

          Harris, James (ed), The Anatomy of Terror: Political Violence under Stalin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)Find this resource:

            Holquist, Peter, Making War, Forging Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002)Find this resource:

              Pons, Silvio, Stalin and the Inevitable War, 1936–1941 (London: Frank Cass, 2002)Find this resource:

                Roberts, Geoffrey, Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006)Find this resource:


                  (1) Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography (London: Oxford University Press, 1949); Robert Conquest, The Great Terror (London: Macmillan, 1968); Donald Rayfield, Stalin and his Hangmen (London: Viking, 2004).

                  (2) The point was originally made by contemporary observers, and then constituted a cornerstone of the totalitarian model in the 1950s. For all that the ‘revisionists’ attacked the model, they agreed with the ‘totalitarian’ school on this point. Their only difference was that they saw the resistance coming from the state as well as from society. See Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956); J. Arch Getty, Origins of the Great Purges (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Gabor Rittersporn, Stalinist Simplifications and Soviet Complications (New York: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1991).

                  (3) I have taken this idea from Sheila Fitzpatrick, ‘Ending the Russian Revolution: Reflections on Soviet History and its Interpreters’, British Academy Elie Kedourie Memorial Lecture, Manchester University, 7 April 2008.

                  (4) James Harris, ‘Encircled by Enemies: Stalin’s Perceptions of the Capitalist World, 1918–1941’, Journal of Strategic Studies 30 (2007), 513–45.

                  (5) Some historians, such as Peter Holquist, emphasize the Bolshevik’s goal of shaping opinion. See his ‘Information is the Alpha and Omega of Our Work: Bolshevik Surveillance in Its Pan-European Context’, Journal of Modern History 67 (1997), 415–50. For more on the system of surveillance, see Vladlen Izmozik, Glaza i ushi rezhima (St. Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo Sankt Peterburgskogo universiteta ekonomiki i finansov, 1995).

                  (6) See especially Erik van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002); Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography (London: Macmillan, 2004).

                  (7) James Harris, ‘Stalin as General Secretary’, in Sarah Davies and James Harris (eds), Stalin: A New History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 63–82.

                  (8) Stalin claimed that what Trotsky was promoting was not democracy, but a freedom of group struggle (svoboda gruppirovok) that would be fatal in the ‘current conditions’ of the New Economic Policy. Trinadtsataia konferentsiia rossiiskoi kommunisticheskoi partii (bolshevikov) (Moscow: Krasnaia nov’, 1924), 100–1.

                  (9) Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Sotsial’no-Politicheskoi Istorii (hereafter RGASPI), Moscow, 558/11/1122/165.

                  (10) Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). See also the superb document collection Viola edited with V. P. Danilov, N. A. Ivnitskii and Denis Kozlov, The War Against the Peasantry, 1927–1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, vol. 1 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).

                  (11) Jeffrey Rossman, Worker Resistance under Stalin: Class and Revolution on the Shop Floor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

                  (12) For an excellent recent treatment of the issue, see Eugenia Belova, ‘Economic Crime and Punishment’, in Paul R. Gregory (ed), Behind the Façade of Stalin’s Command Economy (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2001), 131–58.

                  (13) James Harris, ‘Resisting the Plan in the Urals, 1928–1956, Or Why Regional Officials Needed “Wreckers” and “Saboteurs”’, in Lynne Viola (ed), Contending with Stalinism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 201–27.

                  (14) I. V. Stalin, ‘Politicheskii otchet TsK XVI s’’ezdu VKP(b)’, Sochineniia vol. XII, (Moscow: Politizdat, 1952), 247–56. He delivered the speech on 27 June 1930.

                  (15) G. M. Adibekov et al (eds), Politbiuro TsK RKP(b) – VKP(b) i Komintern (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2004), 234–41.

                  (16) Adibekov et al (eds), Politbiuro TsK RKP(b) – VKP(b) i Komintern, 604–5.

                  (17) V. Mitskevich-Kapsukas, ‘Ekonomicheskii krizis, Pol’sha i limitrofy’, Bolshevik 13 (15 July) 1930, 105–24.

                  (18) O. B. Mozokhin, ‘Iz istorii bor’by organov VChK-OGPU s terrorizmom’, Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal 5 (2002).

                  (19) Stalin appears not to have taken an interest in the quality of Ramzin’s ‘confessions’. While Ramzin was clearly implicated in the counter-revolutionary plot, he was subsequently released and continued his career. It is likely that he told his interrogators what they wanted to hear in exchange for leniency. V. N. Khaustov et al (eds), Lubianka: Stalin i VChK-GPU-OGPU-NKVD, ianvar’ 1922-dekabr’ 1936 (Moscow: Materik, 2003), 804.

                  (20) Kvashonkin et al (eds), Sovetskoe rukovodstvo. Perepiska, 1928–1941 (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1999), 161–2.

                  (21) RGASPI, 558/11/185/19.

                  (22) O. V. Khlevniuk, R. U. Devis (R. W. Davies), L. P. Kosheleva, E. A. Ris (E. A. Rees), L. A. Rogovaia (eds), Stalin i Kaganovich: Perepiska. 1931–1936 gg. (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2001), 274.

                  (23) For more detail see E. A. Rees, ‘Leaders and their Institutions’, in Gregory, Behind the Façade, 35–60; O. V. Khlevniuk, A. V. Kvashonkin, L. P. Kosheleva, L. A. Rogovaia (eds), Stalinskoe Politburo v 30-e gody (Moscow: AIRO-XX, 1995).

                  (24) Mozokhin, ‘Iz istorii bor’by’, 19–20; Robert Thurston, Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), ch. 1; Francesco Benvenuti, ‘The “Reform” of the NKVD, 1934’, Europe-Asia Studies 49, no.6 (September 1997), 1037–56.

                  (25) Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928–1941 (New York: Norton, 1990), 293. See also ‘O dele tak nazyvaemogo “Moskovskogo tsentra”’ Izvestiia TsK 7 (1989), 69.

                  (26) Michal Reiman, The Birth of Stalinism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), appendices.

                  (27) Stalin, Sochineniia, vol. XI, 313–17; Pravda, 24 January 1929; Tucker, Stalin in Power, 126.

                  (28) Copies of these TASS bulletins are in Anastas Mikoian’s personal archive at RGASPI, 84/1/135/3-51.

                  (29) RGASPI, 558/11/1114/49-54. Lih et al (eds), Stalin’s Letters to Molotov, 223, 263.

                  (30) RGASPI, 558/11/1114/49.

                  (31) I. V. Kurilova, N. N. Mikhailov, V. P. Naumov (eds), Reabilitatsiia: politicheskie protsessy 30-50-kh godov (Moscow: Politizdat, 1991), 442.

                  (32) J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov (eds), The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 50–2.

                  (33) In September, Iagoda had criticized the Leningrad NKVD for being complacent in the struggle against counter revolution. Lubianka: Stalin, 569–71.

                  (34) Lubianka: Stalin, 578–79.

                  (35) Zinoviev and Kamenev were arrested after only two. ‘O dele “Leningradskoi kontrrevolutsionnoi zinov’evskoi gruppy Safarova, Zalutskogo i drugikh”’ Izvestiia TsK KPSS 1 (1990), 39.

                  (36) Izvestiia TsK KPSS 1 (1990), 42–3.

                  (37) Lubianka: Stalin, 599–612, 617–19, 626–50. Kamenev denied any involvement.

                  (38) See Iagoda’s 11 March 1935 letter to regional NKVD organs, ‘O perestroika operativnoi raboty i raboty s kadrami’, in A. I. Kokurin and N. V. Petrov (eds), Lubianka: Organy VChK-OGPU-NKVD-NKGB-MGB-MVD-KGB (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnyi fond demokratiia, 2003), 548–52.

                  (39) Harris, ‘Encircled by Enemies’, 535–8.

                  (40) The Case of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre (Moscow: Peoples’ Commissariat of Justice of the USSR, 1936), 88–92 (V. P. Ol’berg), 75, 103 (N. Lur’e).

                  (41) Izvestiia TsK, 8 (1989), 83.

                  (42) Stalin-Kaganovich Correspondence, 359–60.

                  (43) See, eg, Felix Chuev, Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1991), 253–83.

                  (44) My analysis borrows heavily from Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Bernd Bonwetsch, ‘Stalin and the Red Army in the “Great Patriotic War”’, in Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin (eds), Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); David Glantz, Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at War 1941–1943 (Kansas City: Kansas University Press, 2005).

                  (45) Jeffrey W. Jones, ‘Every Family has its Freak: Perceptions of Collaboration in Occupied Soviet Russia, 1943–1948’, Slavic Review 64 (2005), 747–70; Kees Boterbloem, Life and Death under Stalin (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press), 48, 58.

                  (46) See, eg, Stalin’s praise for the common soldier in May 1945 in Vladimir Nevezhin, Zastol’nye rechi Stalina (Moscow: Airo-XX, 2003), doc. 108.

                  (47) Yoram Gorlizki, ‘Ordinary Stalinism: The Council of Ministers and the Soviet Neopatrimonial State, 1946–1953’, Journal of Modern History 74 (2002), 699–736.