The political system which existed in the Soviet Union under Stalin was a system of terror. The purges of the 1930s sent millions of Russians to their deaths or to the Gulags, the population was scared of the secret police, the NKVD, the forced collectivization of agriculture had wiped out a part of Russian society, the Kulaks. The show trials of the thirties had firmly established Stalin as the leader of the Soviet Union. What requires investigation is how far was this regime of terror a new entity in the Soviet Union or how far it was a continuation the state set up by Lenin after the Russian revolution in 1917.
The regime set up by Lenin did have a secret police, the Cheka and it was authoritarian, especially in the the years after the revolution and the civil war. There was forced grain requisitioning during the period of War Communism and political enemies were exiled. That is by no means in question. The difference is that during the Leninist years there was not the wholesale slaughter of millions of Soviet citizens as there was under Stalin in the 1930s. It can be argued therefore, that Stalinism was partly the outcome of Leninist political practice because there were many similarities between the two regimes. However, the Stalinist system was by no means the inevitable outcome of Leninist political practice when one considers the differences between the two regimes and Stalin’s personality compared to that of Lenin. One must also remember that Stalin’s path to power was not a simple accession to power when Lenin died and there were other candidates for leader. Stalin had to out manoeuvre figures such as Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev to get power. Therefore Stalin was not, by any means, ultimately destined to become the leader of the Soviet Union. This may go some way to explaining why he felt the need to be so repressive to any potential political enemies.
After the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 one of the first actions of the new regime was to end Russian involvement in the Great War. The signing of the Brest-Litovsk pact in March 1918 angered the allies because it meant that the Bolsheviks were going back on the Tsarist and Provisional Government’s policies of continuing the war against the Germans. This lead to the landing of Allied troops in Russia to support the ‘White’ anti – Bolshevik, counter – revolutionary armies. This, in turn lead to the setting up of the ‘Red’ army.
The Soviet secret police, or Cheka, was not a product of the civil war itself, it had been set up in December 1917. The role of the secret police changed though during the civil war into, as Fitzpatrick puts it an,
From this we can see that the fledgling Socialist regime which promised freedoms from the repressions of the Tsarist days acting was acting in a repressive way itself under Lenin. However under Lenin in 1918 and the first half of 1919 in the region of 8,389 people were executed by the Cheka, this must be contrasted to Stalin’s regime when, during the terror of the 1930s, according to Bullock,
The figures speak for themselves and illustrate how much more repressive the Stalinist system was only twenty years later.
`In the aftermath of the October revolution the Bolsheviks tried to nationalise the Russian economy along communist lines. On of the facets of this was the requisitioning of grain in the countryside to feed the cities because of poor transport and trading systems. The government decreed that all grain above that which was needed for re-planting and personal consumption was to be handed over to the state at a fixed price. Local ‘Committees of Poor Peasants’ were set up to oversee the acquisition of grain and distribution of food in the villages. However this proved inefficient and the town workers were sent in to requisition grain for themselves and to give industrial goods to those peasants that helped to gather the grain. In 1920-21 when the ‘White’ army was no longer a threat the peasants started to rise against the Bolsheviks in a series of insurrections in the black-earth provinces. An example being Tambov where an old SR leader Antononov lead a peasant ‘army’ against the Bolsheviks. Those peasants suspected of being part of Antonov’s army were executed and even whole villages were burned to the ground. Here Lenin can be seen as repressing a section of Russian society and using terror to force the peasants to give up their grain. Stalin, in the 1930s, used terror to enforce the wholesale collectivization of agriculture to a much greater extent than Lenin in order to fund industrialisation, to quote Alex De Jonge,
“..Stalin declared war on his peasants, calling for the immediate ‘liquidation of the Kulaks as a class’. The party went into immediate action, rounding up those peasants and their families, right down to breast-fed infants, that local activists had decided were Kulaks.”
From this it can be seen that to Lenin the peasants were a problem that was dealt with harshly, but from 1921 onwards the policy became more relaxed with the taxation on the peasants and the halting of forced grain requisitioning. This was extended with the introduction of the NEP and a return to some level of capitalism in agriculture. However to Stalin the peasants were some form of enemy who, especially the Kulaks, needed to be ‘liquidated’ as a class. This idea of ‘liquidation’ seems almost reminiscent of Hitler’s attitude toward the Jews in the 1940s. So Stalin’s method of dealing with the peasant question was much more extreme than that of Lenin.
Lenin was not afraid to use terror when it was necessary. In march 1921 the Red army was used to put down an uprising by the sailors in the Krondstadt garrison who were rebelling against the “..arbitrary rule of the commissars’ and calling for a true soviet republic of workers and peasants”. The revolt was put down by units of the Cheka and the Red army. This was a very significant event because the Krondstadt sailors were vehement supporters of the Bolsheviks and had been stalwarts of the revolution so for Lenin to put them down in such a ruthless manner showed the way in which he was prepared to use force to silence political opposition. The Krondstadt sailors were accusing the Bolshevik leaders of betraying the revolution and not acting in the best interests of the people of Russia, by silencing the sailors in such a way, it can be argued that all Lenin did, in effect, was prove them to be correct.
The fact that Stalin reverted Lenin’s policy of NEP was a significant break with the policy of Lenin. Stalin, once in power, brought about the forced collectivization of agriculture and used this to pay for his plans for the large scale industrialization of Russia which was still, by western standards, a backward power. It can be argued, therefore, that Stalinism could not have come from Leninism because of the reversal by Stalin of Lenin’s policy. However because of differences in the policies of the two leaders it does not mean that the political method of Lenin, for example the use of the secret police, could not have influenced that of Stalin.
The other main hallmark of the Stalinst era except that of collectivization has to be that of the Terror. Although Lenin had used the secret police to capture political enemies and ensure that opposition was silenced, as in the case of the Krondstadt rebellion, there was not the use of terror on such a large scale as there was under Stalin.
The terror started in 1934 after the assassination of Kirov, the first secretary of the Leningrad party. Kirov lead a majority which voted against Stalin on the Ryutin case. Stalin saw Kirov as a threat from now on even though there is little evidence to suggest that Kirov was against Stalin on many issues. Kirov was murdered on December 1st 1934 by a man named Nikoaelev. Stalin was not directly implicated in the murder but it has been suggested that Stalin, in a sense, allowed the killing to take place by ensuring that certain circumstances enabled the killer to get near to Kirov. One can see the advantages of this to Stalin, on the one hand it silenced a potential opponent and on the other it enabled the widespread clamp down on political opposition. So even if Stalin had not been involved in a plot to eliminate Kirov he used the event to silence all opponents.
The terror which followed the assassination took several different forms and involved mass deportations to the labour camps or Gulags or execution. The ‘Show Trials’ were among the most famous parts of the terror. In these trials Stalin’s political opposition were accused, in the case of Zinoviev and Kamenev of plotting Stalin’s murder. The purpose of these trials was to discredit the people whom Stalin feared as potential opposition, people such as Bukharin, Rykov and Yagoda. The defendants were all sentenced to death. These trials were based on confessions of the accused men, and therefore meant that there was no case to prove.
The NKVD, or secret police, played, it can be argued, the greatest role in the terror of the 1930s. The huge network of informers meant that the population were in constant fear of each other as well as the state machine. anyone was a potential NKVD informer even close family members, Hosking writes,
“Children were encouraged to denounce their parents”.
From this we can see that the actual fabric of society and family was broken up because no-one could be trusted any longer. This would almost certainly end any chance of organised political opposition to Stalin because there was no way of be able to trust anyone totally. The people who you might share your political grievances with may tell the NKVD and then there may be the dreaded knock at the door.
The NKVD, because of their need to obtain confessions from suspects, had to use torture to get them. There was not only the pain of the torture but the fear of reprisals against other members of your family if you do not tell the NKVD what they want to hear. This state of perpetual worry on the part of the people was unlike anything which there had been before, during Lenin’s time as leader.
“..told his assistant Mnukin that Stalin was a typical case of severe paranoia and that a dangerous man was now head of the Soviet Union.”
This diagnosis seems to point to the fact that Stalin had paranoia problems. This is of no real surprise when one considers the way in which Stalin had millions of Soviet citizens sent to the Gulag or to their execution because of his fear of opposition. Bullock then goes on to write about the way in which Stalin was described by those closest to him, words such as,
“-chronic suspicion, self-absorption, jealousy, hypersensitivity, megalomania-”
This all helps to explain the reasoning behind the terror and the purges, that is, Stalin’s psychological make-up. This is one reason that the Stalinist system could not have come from that of Lenin. Stalin’s way of dealing with the ‘chronic suspicion was to set up the regime of terror which he felt could deal with this and ensure his safety as leader of the Soviet Union.
After Lenin’s death in 1924 there was no smooth transition of power in the Soviet Union and no set method for selecting a new leader. Stalin was by no means the immediate choice, although through his position as General Secretary of the party he was able to create a power base of support, from which to manoeuvre toward the position of leader. In doing this he had to side with different groups of people within the party structure and then turn against them at a later date in order to advance his own position. This process went on from 1924 until 1928 when Zinoviev and Kamenev decided to support Stalin and accept the rule of one party. What this manoeuvering meant was that Stalin did not have the right to assume power on the death of Lenin and Stalinism was not therefore the natural progression from Leninism. After Lenin’s death and once he was firmly in power Stalin tried to portray himself as Lenin’s heir. But the document which Lenin wrote prior to his death warned against Stalin. This document became known as Lenin’s Testament.
Lenin’s Testament was written shortly before his death and warned the party about Stalin. It warned of the amount of power which Stalin had acquired through his post of General Secretary and expressed fears as to wether Stalin could use the power that he had carefully. Lenin added afterwards that,
“Stalin is too rude, and this defect…is intolerable in the person of a general secretary.”
This shows that Lenin himself did not see Stalin as his successor and even that Lenin objected to the thought of Stalin in a position of power within the party and state. Alex De Jonge goes further to say that Lenin had,
So in writing the Testament Lenin was warning the party of the dangers of Stalin and that he should have his power limited. From this perspective, therefore, it is hard to see how Stalinism could come from Leninism when, towards the end of his life, Lenin was actively warning against Stalin.
Stalinism shared some of the same features of Leninism, of that there is no doubt. Both systems had a secret police in operation and both used this secret police to deal with political opposition. The difference is in the scale of the terror used. Stalinist terror was on a much larger scale than that of Leninist times, involving the execution and exile of millions of Soviet citizens. The social fabric was broken up, no-one knew who was an informer and parents were denounced by their children. Lenin tried to collectivize agriculture under the policy of War Communism, this failed, he reverted and followed the policy of NEP. Stalin ruthlessly collectivized agriculture and ‘liquidated’ an entire class the Kulaks. The Stalinist system was a regime of terror in the most vivid sense everyone was scared of the knock at the door in the middle of the night when the NKVD came.
Stalin was a paranoid man who suspected that virtually everybody was an opponent, especially those whom he defeated to become leader. These men were executed, even Trotsky who left the Soviet Union in the late 1920s was tracked down to his home in Mexico and assassinated in 1940. Stalin’s psychological make-up meant that his paranoia found its outlet in the execution of millions as enemies of the regime. There is no way that this could have had its basis in Leninism.
The final point about wether Leninism lead to Stalinism was that Lenin, through his testament, made it very clear that he did not see Stalin as fit to lead the Soviet Union. This is of vital importance because it can therefore be argued that because Lenin did not want Stalin to get power the outcome of Leninism should have been anything but Stalinism. The fact that Stalinism did come into being shows that Stalinism was different to Leninism because Stalin was feared by Lenin.
Therefore Stalinism shared some of the same attributes of Leninism. However because of the extreme nature of the terror, Stalin’s personal psychological make-up and the fact that Lenin did not want Stalin to succeed him, Stalinism was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the inevitable outcome of Leninist political practice.