Transformation and Terror

Russia Table of Contents

The gradual accession of Stalin to power in the 1920s eventually brought an end to the liberalization of society and the economy, leading instead to a period of unprecedented government control, mobilization, and terrorization of society in Russia and the other Soviet republics. In the 1930s, agriculture and industry underwent brutal forced centralization, and Russian cultural activity was highly restricted. Purges eliminated thousands of individuals deemed dangerous to the Soviet state by Stalin's operatives.

Industrialization and Collectivization

At the end of the 1920s, a dramatic new phase in economic development began when Stalin decided to carry out a program of intensive socialist construction. To some extent, Stalin pressed economic development at this point as a political maneuver to eliminate rivals within the party. Because Bukharin and some other party members would not give up the gradualistic NEP in favor of radical development, Stalin branded them "right-wing deviationists" and during 1929 and 1930 used the party organization to remove them from influential positions. Yet Stalin's break with the NEP also revealed that his doctrine of building "socialism in one country" paralleled the line that Trotsky had originally supported early in the 1920s. Marxism supplied no basis for Stalin's model of a planned economy, although the centralized economic controls of the war communism years seemingly furnished a Leninist precedent. Between 1927 and 1929, the State Planning Committee (Gosudarstvennyy planovyy komitet--Gosplan) worked out the First Five-Year Plan (see Glossary) for intensive economic growth; Stalin began to implement this plan--his "revolution from above"--in 1928.

The First Five-Year Plan called for rapid industrialization of the economy, with particular emphasis on heavy industry. The economy was centralized: small-scale industry and services were nationalized, managers strove to fulfill Gosplan's output quotas, and the trade unions were converted into mechanisms for increasing worker productivity. But because Stalin insisted on unrealistic production targets, serious problems soon arose. With the greatest share of investment put into heavy industry, widespread shortages of consumer goods occurred, and inflation grew.

To satisfy the state's need for increased food supplies, the First Five-Year Plan called for the organization of the peasantry into collective units that the authorities could easily control. This collectivization program entailed compounding the peasants' lands and animals into collective farms (kolkhozy; sing., kolkhoz --see Glossary) and state farms (sovkhozy; sing., sovkhoz --see Glossary) and restricting the peasants' movement from these farms. The effect of this restructuring was to reintroduce a kind of serfdom into the countryside. Although the program was designed to affect all peasants, Stalin in particular sought to eliminate the wealthiest peasants, known as kulaks. Generally, kulaks were only marginally better off than other peasants, but the party claimed that the kulaks had ensnared the rest of the peasantry in capitalistic relationships. In any event, collectivization met widespread resistance not only from the kulaks but from poorer peasants as well, and a desperate struggle of the peasantry against the authorities ensued. Peasants slaughtered their cows and pigs rather than turn them over to the collective farms, with the result that livestock resources remained below the 1929 level for years afterward. The state in turn forcibly collectivized reluctant peasants and deported kulaks and active rebels to Siberia. Within the collective farms, the authorities in many instances exacted such high levels of procurement that starvation was widespread.

By 1932 Stalin realized that both the economy and society were under serious strain. Although industry failed to meet its production targets and agriculture actually lost ground in comparison with 1928 yields, Stalin declared that the First Five-Year Plan had successfully met its goals in four years. He then proceeded to set more realistic goals. Under the Second Five-Year Plan (1933-37), the state devoted attention to consumer goods, and the factories built under the first plan helped increase industrial output in general. The Third Five-Year Plan, begun in 1938, produced poorer results because of a sudden shift of emphasis to armaments production in response to the worsening international climate. In general, however, the Soviet economy had become industrialized by the end of the 1930s. Agriculture, which had been exploited to finance the industrialization drive, continued to show poor returns throughout the decade.

The Purges

The complete subjugation of the party to Stalin, its leader, paralleled the subordination of industry and agriculture to the state. Stalin had assured his preeminent position by squelching Bukharin and the "right-wing deviationists" in 1929 and 1930. To secure his absolute control over the party, however, Stalin began to purge leaders and rank-and-file members whose loyalty he doubted.

Stalin's purges began in December 1934, when Sergey Kirov, a popular Leningrad party chief who advocated a moderate policy toward the peasants, was assassinated. Although details remain murky, many Western historians believe that Stalin instigated the murder to rid himself of a potential opponent. In any event, in the resultant mass purge of the local Leningrad party, thousands were deported to camps in Siberia. Zinov'yev and Kamenev, Stalin's former political partners, received prison sentences for their alleged role in Kirov's murder. At the same time, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyy komissariat vnutrennikh del--NKVD), the secret police agency that was heir to the Cheka of the early 1920s, stepped up surveillance through its agents and informers and claimed to uncover anti-Soviet conspiracies among prominent long-term party members. At three publicized show trials held in Moscow between 1936 and 1938, dozens of these Old Bolsheviks, including Zinov'yev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, confessed to improbable crimes against the Soviet state. Their confessions were quickly followed by execution. (The last of Stalin's old enemies, Trotsky, who supposedly had masterminded the conspiracies against Stalin from abroad, was murdered in Mexico in 1940, presumably by the NKVD.) Coincident with the show trials of the original leadership of the party, unpublicized purges swept through the ranks of younger leaders in party, government, industrial management, and cultural affairs. Party purges in the non-Russian republics were particularly severe. The Yezhovshchina ("era of Yezhov," named for NKVD chief Nikolay Yezhov) ravaged the military as well, leading to the execution or incarceration of about half the officer corps. The secret police also terrorized the general populace, with untold numbers of common people punished after spurious accusations. By the time the purges subsided in 1938, millions of Soviet leaders, officials, and other citizens had been executed, imprisoned, or exiled.

The reasons for the period of widespread purges, which became known as the Great Terror, remain unclear. Western historians variously hypothesize that Stalin created the terror out of a desire to goad the population to carry out his intensive modernization program, or to atomize society to preclude dissent, or simply out of brutal paranoia. Whatever the causes, the purges must be viewed as having weakened the Soviet state.

In 1936, just as the Great Terror was intensifying, Stalin approved a new Soviet constitution to replace that of 1924. Hailed as "the most democratic constitution in the world," the 1936 document stipulated free and secret elections based on universal suffrage and guaranteed the citizenry a range of civil and economic rights. But in practice the freedoms implied by these rights were denied by provisions elsewhere in the constitution that indicated that the basic structure of Soviet society could not be changed and that the party retained all political power.

The power of the party, in turn, now was concentrated in the persons of Stalin and the members of his handpicked Politburo. As if to symbolize the lack of influence of the party rank and file, party congresses were convened less and less frequently. State power, far from "withering away" after the revolution as Karl Marx had prescribed, instead grew. With Stalin consciously building what critics would later describe as a cult of personality, the reverence accorded him in Soviet society gradually eclipsed that given to Lenin.

Mobilization of Society

Concomitant with industrialization and collectivization, society also experienced wide-ranging regimentation. Collective enterprises replaced individualistic efforts across the board. Not only did the regime abolish private farms and businesses, but it collectivized scientific and literary endeavors as well. As the 1930s progressed, the revolutionary experimentation that had characterized many facets of cultural and social life gave way to conservative norms.

Considerations of order and discipline dominated social policy, which became an instrument of the modernization effort. Workers came under strict labor codes demanding punctuality and discipline, and labor unions served as extensions of the industrial ministries. At the same time, higher pay and privileges accrued to productive workers and labor brigades. To provide greater social stability, the state aimed to strengthen the family by restricting divorce and abolishing abortion.

Literature and the arts came under direct party control during the 1930s, with mandatory membership in unions of writers, musicians, and other artists entailing adherence to established standards. After 1934 the party dictated that creative works had to express socialistic spirit through traditional forms. This officially sanctioned doctrine, called "socialist realism," applied to all fields of art. The state repressed works that were stylistically innovative or lacked appropriate content.

The party also subjected science and the liberal arts to its scrutiny. Development of scientific theory in a number of fields had to be based upon the party's understanding of the Marxist dialectic, which derailed serious research in certain disciplines. The party took a more active role in directing work in the social sciences. In the writing of history, the orthodox Marxist interpretation employed in the late 1920s was modified to include nationalistic themes and to stress the role of great leaders to create legitimacy for Stalin's dictatorship.

Education returned to traditional forms as the party discarded the experimental programs of Lunacharskiy after 1929. Admission procedures underwent modification: candidates for higher education now were selected on the basis of their academic records rather than their class origins. Religion suffered from a state policy of increased repression, starting with the closure of numerous churches in 1929. Persecution of clergy was particularly severe during the purges of the late 1930s, when many of the faithful went underground (see The Russian Orthodox Church, ch. 4).

Foreign Policy, 1928-39

Soviet foreign policy underwent a series of changes during the first decade of Stalin's rule. Soon after assuming control of the party, Stalin oversaw a radicalization of Soviet foreign policy that paralleled the severity of his remaking of domestic policy. To heighten the urgency of his demands for moderniza-tion, Stalin portrayed the Western powers, particularly France, as warmongers eager to attack the Soviet Union. The Great Depression, which seemingly threatened to destroy world capitalism in the early 1930s, provided ideological justification for the diplomatic self-isolation practiced by the Soviet Union in that period. To aid the triumph of communism, Stalin resolved to weaken the moderate social democratic parties of Europe, which seemed to be the communists' rivals for support among the working classes of the Western world.

Conversely, the Comintern ordered the Communist Party of Germany to aid the anti-Soviet National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party) in its bid for power, in the hopes that a Nazi regime would exacerbate social tensions and produce conditions that would lead to a communist revolution in Germany. In pursuing this policy, Stalin thus shared responsibility for Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and its tragic consequences for the Soviet Union and the rest of the world.

The dynamics of Soviet foreign relations changed drastically after Stalin recognized the danger posed by Nazi Germany. From 1934 through 1937, the Soviet Union tried to restrain German militarism by building coalitions hostile to fascism. In the international communist movement, the Comintern adopted the "popular front" policy of cooperation with socialists and liberals against fascism, thus reversing its line of the early 1930s. In 1934 the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations, where Maksim Litvinov, the Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, advocated disarmament and collective security against fascist aggression. In 1935 the Soviet Union formed defensive military alliances with France and Czechoslovakia, and from 1936 to 1939 it gave assistance to antifascists in the Spanish Civil War. The menace of fascist militarism to the Soviet Union increased when Germany and Japan (which already posed a substantial threat to the Soviet Far East) signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936. But the West proved unwilling to counter German provocative behavior, and after France and Britain acceded to Hitler's demands for Czechoslovak territory at Munich in 1938, Stalin abandoned his efforts to forge a collective security agreement with the West.

Convinced now that the West would not fight Hitler, Stalin decided to come to an understanding with Germany. Signaling a shift in foreign policy, Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's loyal assistant, replaced Litvinov, who was Jewish, as commissar of foreign affairs in May 1939. Hitler, who had decided to attack Poland despite the guarantees of Britain and France to defend that country, soon responded to the changed Soviet stance. While Britain and France dilatorily attempted to induce the Soviet Union to join them in pledging to protect Poland, the Soviet Union and Germany engaged in intense negotiations. The product of the talks between the former ideological foes--the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) of August 23, 1939--shocked the world. The open provisions of the agreement pledged absolute neutrality in the event one of the parties should become involved in war, while a secret protocol partitioned Poland between the parties and assigned Romanian territory as well as Estonia and Latvia (and later Lithuania) to the Soviet sphere of influence. With his eastern flank thus secured, Hitler began the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939; Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. World War II had begun.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress