The Inevitable Triumph of Stalinism? 1924–1941

Even before Lenin’s death in 1924, when he lay ailing in his dacha (from late 1922 onward), a struggle developed between his lieutenants about his succession. By the late 1920s, it was evident that Stalin had outfoxed his rivals. Once he was the uncontested boss, Stalin unleashed a political program that had as its goal the establishment of a socialist society in the Soviet Union. As a consequence, the Soviet Union was much more of an industrialized country toward 1940, but this was virtually the only achievement of Stalin’s “Great Turn.” This success came at an appalling price, causing extreme hardship in the countryside and in the towns. Millions died during the 1930s. Whereas the Soviet Union’s ultimate victory over the Nazis in the Second World War may be attributed to the industrial plant built up during the first Five Year Plans, the Soviet military performance was crippled by Stalin’s purges and misreading of Hitler’s intentions, almost leading to a Soviet defeat. Much of the backbreaking work performed by Soviet citizens to transform their country into an industrialized society was thus wasted. It is a virtual certainty that any of Stalin’s rivals of the 1920s would have done better if they had succeeded Lenin. But it is moot how much more humane they would have been, since all had adopted a ruthless style of rule during the revolution and civil war.


Lenin’s imprint on the twentieth century was deep, but his time at the helm of the Soviet Union was short. His health had already begun to deteriorate in late 1921. This was partially the result of the strain of the previous five years of intense activity, but his father, too, had died in his early fifties, exhibiting the same symptoms to which his son was to succumb. In May 1922, Lenin suffered the first of a series of strokes. By October he had recovered, but in December of that year he suffered another brain hemorrhage that partially paralyzed him. After this, he no longer took any active part in the government. He lay ill in his Kremlin apartment for several months until a new stroke in March 1923 robbed him of his speech altogether. He was then transferred to his country estate near Moscow, where he died in January 1924.

Even if he did not rise from his sickbed after the second stroke, Lenin did compose, with the help of a few secretaries and his wife Nadezhda Krupskaia (1869–1939), a series of papers that conveyed his final thoughts about several developments in his country that had begun to worry him in the course of 1922. He also reflected on the qualities of the leading personalities with whom he had worked in the Communist Party and Sovnarkom in recent years. Because of Lenin’s illness and death, Lenin’s notes were only conveyed to the Thirteenth Party Congress of May 1924.1 Long after, around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became evident that Lenin had asked Lev Trotsky to succeed him as Soviet leader. Trotsky himself, however, rejected the offer, since he believed that the Soviet population would not accept a Jew as its leader. He implied that the Slavic population in particular had been conditioned by a long history of anti-Semitism. But Trotsky does not seem to have suggested an alternative successor to Lenin.

Lenin dictated in the fall of 1922 a few observations about the six men whom he thought would play leading roles in the Soviet leadership after his death. People’s Commissar of War Trotsky, obviously, was among them. Lenin thought the Soviet “Organizer of Victory” brilliant but deemed him to be unduly fond of coercive methods.2 In addition, Lenin implied that as a late arrival to the party, Trotsky was too much of a free spirit, insufficiently trained in seeing the world in Bolshevik terms and reluctant to submit to Bolshevik discipline when he disagreed with the majority.3Politburo members Grigorii Zinov'ev, the Leningrad party chief and Comintern head, and Lev Kamenev, Lenin’s deputy as Sovnarkom chairman and Moscow party boss, were accused of lacking stamina and determination, as they had shown in October–November 1917, when they had publicly protested the plans for a Bolshevik coup. By this, Lenin meant that this duo harbored certain moral scruples and showed possible signs of cowardice, qualities that would hinder a Communist leader in exerting power. The young (alternate) Politburo member Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1838) was a charming fellow, Lenin admitted, but he went on to argue that Bukharin’s reputation as a leading Marxist theorist was undeserved because he did not really understand Marxist dialectics. Central Committee member Yuri Piatakov (1890–1937) was another young prodigy whom Lenin deemed talented enough to be considered as a potential Soviet leader; he, too, was not quite the ideal Bolshevik boss, since he lost himself too much in paperwork and lost track of the big picture.4

Finally, then, Lenin recognized in this “Testament” Stalin as the most outstanding leader next to Trotsky. Lenin praised the talent Stalin exhibited as a chief but suggested that he occupied too many posts in the party and government. Most problematic was his new role as general secretary of the party, which he had become at the Eleventh Party Congress in 1922. This position, Lenin implied, might offer too much opportunity for manipulation and intrigue. And Lenin was also concerned about Stalin and Trotsky’s strong mutual dislike, since they were the senior chiefs in his absence.5Lenin seemed to conclude, nevertheless, that, for the moment, the ship of state could be steered by this sextet despite their disagreements and former quarrels.

Ten days later, however, Lenin wrote a postscript that was to become famous because of its prophetic quality (even if it was suppressed in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s autocracy was firmly established):

Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from this post and appointing another man in his stead, who . . . differs from Comrade Stalin in . . . being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite, and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc. This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail. But I think that as precaution against a split, and considering what I wrote previously about the relationship between Stalin and Trotsky, it is not a detail, or it is a detail which can assume decisive importance.

Apparently, Lenin’s change of heart (or his sudden alarm) about Stalin had been brought about by a falling-out between Stalin and Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaia. In 1922, the Politburo had appointed Stalin as the sick Lenin’s guardian. The Politburo had ordered that the excitable Lenin should not be disturbed by affairs of state to avoid having his condition deteriorate. When Stalin found out in December that Lenin was still being informed about politics, he proceeded to blame Lenin’s wife over the phone for this trespass and used some choice words in rebuking her. Lenin, son of a nineteenth-century landowning aristocrat, adhered to an honor-and-behavioral code perhaps poorly suited to the crude twentieth century. In contrast, Stalin, son of a cobbler, proved to have a coarseness offensive to aristocratic sensibilities but necessary to survive and thrive in that cruel age. Lenin was aghast with Stalin’s rudeness and suddenly recognized in Stalin fatal character flaws. But he became utterly powerless when, not long after dictating his “Testament,” he suffered another stroke.

Even before Lenin died, Stalin had become the most important leader of the Communist Party, to a significant degree because as general secretary he could manipulate the appointment system (called nomenklatura in Russian) used by the party through the Central Committee’s Secretariat. Candidates for the several thousand senior positions in the country’s party and state apparatus were vetted by department heads in the Secretariat and the secretaries who oversaw them, among whom the general secretary was the final arbitrator. Unassuming and hardworking, Stalin proved an outstanding patron of a variety of clients who were dependent on him for their political careers by his skillful use of this system. Stalin selected and cultivated the party’s elite so ably that by 1929 he became the unchallenged leader of the Soviet Union.

His rivals, who were wont to believe that they were locked in an ideological struggle with Stalin for Lenin’s succession, wrote essays and books and gave speeches in which they decried Stalin’s political ideas. The general secretary’s manipulation of the nomenklatura system, however, was far more than any political argument responsible for his emergence as a one-man ruler. Despite Lenin’s warnings in his “Testament,” none of the other ranking leaders seems to have understood after 1922 that the post of general secretary of the party was the key to power.

If ideas had truly mattered, the party faithful might have asked why Stalin first had condemned Trotsky (in 1923–1924) and Zinov'ev and Kamenev (in 1924–1925) for their “leftist” ideas, only to adopt several of those very ideas in advocating rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture in 1928–1929. And few questioned why he condemned in 1928–1929 his former ally Bukharin for his “rightist deviation” of defending the New Economic Policy (NEP). After all, Stalin had wholeheartedly sponsored the NEP before 1928 against Trotsky, Zinov'ev, and Kamenev.

Rather than attacking Stalin for such inconsistencies, the delegates at party congresses of the 1920s and the members of the Central Committee at their meetings successively attacked Trotsky (as well as Piatakov), Zinov'ev and Kamenev, and Bukharin and his allies, Sovnarkom chairman Aleksei Rykov (1881–1938) and trade union boss Mikhail Tomskii (1880–1936). Stalin’s deft use of the nomenklatura system is evident. Local party organizations delegated their leaders to party congresses, but Stalin and his assistants in the Secretariat had vetted these local chiefs before appointing them to lead these party branches. Few questioned the bosses that Moscow had dispatched to lead them, partially because such criticism might be considered the factionalism prohibited by the Tenth Party Congress of 1921. At the congresses of the 1920s, these delegates elected a Central Committee of like-minded people who equally benefited from their support for Stalin and basked in his benevolence.

Stalin’s most loyal and influential cronies of the 1920s still boasted of having been personally acquainted with Lenin, but those who joined his inner circle after 1930 were upstarts who had played no significant role in the revolution or Civil War. Conveniently, the second group had not witnessed Stalin’s quarrels with Lenin and thus did not suspect their “Boss” (as he became known) of ever being anything less than Lenin’s best pupil. Most important among the first group were the Central Committee secretaries Viacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich (1893–1991); the Transcaucasian chief and All-Union economic boss Grigorii (Sergo) Ordzhonikidze (1886–1937); the Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov (1886–1934); and the People’s Commissar of Defense Kliment Voroshilov (1881–1969). Among the second group were the security police chief and Central Committee secretary Nikolai Yezhov (1895–1940); his successor Lavrentii Beria (1899–1953; chief of the Transcaucasian region in the first half of the 1930s); the Central Committee secretary and Leningrad boss Andrei Zhdanov (1896–1948); the Ukrainian and subsequently Moscow party chief Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971); and the Central Committee secretary Georgii Malenkov (1900–1988).


While the supreme leaders of the Soviet Union were wrangling about Lenin’s mantle, the country enjoyed several years of comparative tranquility. This allowed the population to recover from the devastation of war, revolution, and civil war. After the worst effects of the famine were overcome in the course of 1922, agriculture recovered fairly swiftly. Industrial production lagged behind, but it, too, began to reach pre-1914 levels by the late 1920s. Foreign countries began to accept the existence of a “Red Russia,” and no genuine threat of war loomed. But it was difficult to find foreign credit. In 1918, Lenin and his comrades had renounced the foreign debt contracted by the tsarist government and had defaulted on any payment of foreign- or domestic-owned bonds after nationalizing the banks. So few investors trusted the Soviet government with their money, except such daredevil entrepreneurs as the American businessman Armand Hammer (1898–1990). Without foreign credit, it was difficult to pay for modern machinery that could be used in Soviet factories and mines. Some relief was found in selling off the tsarist gold reserves on the international market, or parts of the art collections and jewelry owned by the former aristocracy or house of Romanov, but such sources were not inexhaustible.

In the second half of the 1920s, the Soviet leaders decided to lower the prices they paid to the peasants on agricultural products, especially grain. This lowered the cost of living for blue-collar workers and thus increased real wages without pay raises. It further permitted the regime to sell grain on the international market with a greater profit margin and thus generate revenue to pay for the importation of foreign-made technology. This was not unlike the tsarist finance ministers’ policies of the 1890s. But the peasants responded in 1927 and 1928 by hoarding their grain, awaiting higher prices. The Soviet authorities in their turn fell back on forced grain requisitioning. As in the Civil War, armed detachments of Red Army soldiers, party and government workers, and secret-police officials visited the villages, where they forced peasants to give up their grain. This policy, however, had not worked in the longer term in the Civil War, for peasants eventually shut down production altogether or turned to armed resistance.

Therefore, in the course of 1928, and with ever greater conviction in 1929, Stalin and his followers decided that the time had come for a radical policy switch. First a Five-Year Plan of economic development was drafted by the State Planning Bureau (Gosplan). In 1929, the plan was retroactively announced to have started on 1 September 1928. Its production targets and construction plans were continuously increased in the course of 1929, until they aimed at economic growth levels that were unprecedented in human history. Indeed, when in late 1932 the plan was declared to have been fulfilled in four years (and a few months), in reality almost none of the goals had been met.

Twice during the unfolding of the plan, Stalin went on record to explain the epochal importance of the plan to the Soviet citizens and the world. In December 1929, he noted in the national newspaper Pravda how the Soviet Union had embarked on “the Great Turn of socialist construction.” He further explained to a meeting of Soviet engineers in February 1931 that the Soviet Union was “fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must overcome this backwardness in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us.”

The theory indeed had an elementary logic to it. Here was the only Communist country in the world, surrounded by capitalist foes who could not but wish for its destruction. How could capitalists tolerate the existence of a country that was run by the people they exploited elsewhere across the globe? The Soviet Union could survive only by developing rapidly into a country that had reached the same degree of industrialization as the leading capitalist states. Only then could it afford an army that could defend its border (or aid Communists who tried to take power elsewhere). And only by industrializing quickly could the Soviet Union point the way to the radiant future of a communist horn of plenty.

There was a great deal of enthusiasm in 1929 for the project, and many people proved willing to work tirelessly and for virtually no reward to lay the basis for the promised society of plenty. Urban young men and women in the boomtowns and cities identified with the proletarian cause, and many rural youth flocked from the countryside to the cities to build socialism. Fortified by their idealism, they selflessly toiled, surviving on badly prepared food in large canteens and meager supplies to which ration cards entitled them, sleeping on bunk beds in poorly heated army-style barracks, and working endless shifts constructing new plants, at textile looms, digging ore in mines, and so on. But the population of the Soviet Union did not quite become a harmonious commune of worker bees willing to sacrifice their health and well-being for the good of the cause indefinitely.


Far from everyone was convinced that such a paradise on earth was in the offing, given sufficient effort and planning. In the first place, a generational gap made many urban citizens in their thirties and older far less keen on the Great Turn than the young. The lives of those who vividly remembered the catastrophe that began in 1914 and ended in 1922 had been hard enough. In their experience, radical change had not always been for the better. But far greater than the doubts about the transformation in the cities was the general reluctance in the Soviet countryside about the transformation of agricultural production. And whereas party activists managed sometimes in Russian-speaking rural communities to drum up a degree of enthusiasm for the cause of collectivization, in non-Russian areas party activists were hard to find in the countryside before 1930.


Figure 7.1. A newly finished collective-farm hut, 1930s (Library of Congress)

This rural skepsis was of great significance, for the great majority of the Soviet population (around 120 million people out of 155 million) lived in villages. In some parts of the Russian countryside, people seem to have been at least willing to entertain the concept of collective farms because individual farms had traditionally hardly yielded a profit there. As we saw, in order to make ends meet in north and central Russia, many peasants departed the villages to work as itinerant artisans or, in the winter, as seasonal workers in towns where such work was in demand. In addition, in most parts of the Soviet Union some farming jobs had been undertaken collectively from time immemorial; in theory, villagers were therefore not averse to working as a team. For example, climatic circumstances made harvest time exceedingly brief in central and northern Russia, where rye, potatoes, and flax were grown. The whole village together hauled in everyone’s crops in a matter of days. Combining one’s efforts in these regions was further sensible because their soil was poor, too. Few efforts to improve soil quality had been made in the tsarist era or 1920s because peasants could not afford such improvements on their own, or did not know about them. Even animal manure was in short supply, as most peasants had at best one dairy cow. Because of its high cost, peasants by themselves could not easily purchase mechanized agricultural equipment, and in central and northern Russia as much as elsewhere, horses provided the main draft power for plowing or transport.

But in other parts of the country, agricultural production might yield more than just a basic livelihood to a family, sometimes because of better soil and climatic conditions, and sometimes because production had specialized in the exclusive cultivation of one crop, in dairy cattle, or in meat production. By the eve of the First World War, tsarist Russia had become a substantial exporter of grain. This surplus originated mainly in the Black Earth zone in the borderlands of Russia and Ukraine south of Moscow. While some of these regions were lost to Poland in the Russian-Polish peace treaty of Riga in 1921, Ukrainian farms in particular remained capable of growing a considerable surplus. But the Ukrainians were far less in the habit of working their lands collectively than those tilling poorer soils.

Collective or communal farms were not entirely new to the Soviet Union in 1928 or 1929. Various socialist thinkers had vaguely written about them. Most of the experimental collectives founded before 1929 had failed, however. Any profound understanding of farming was uncommon among Bolsheviks, or, for that matter, other Marxists, who believed that the solution to the world’s problems was to be found in the cities. Indeed, at one point during the preparation for the grandiose changes in the countryside, a leading party boss, Andrei Andreev (1895–1971), who had been assigned a key agricultural portfolio, admitted in a Central Committee meeting that he knew little about farming. His comrade Ordzhonikidze put Andreev at ease by assuring him that none of the other leaders knew much about farming.

Agricultural cooperatives had existed in prerevolutionary Russia and existed during the 1920s. Often, peasants had teamed up to sell their products. This was more efficient than selling them individually. They also joined up to purchase expensive equipment that was to be shared by several households. The Communists interpreted such collaboration as promising signs of the alignment of Marxist theory with economic practice; such cooperation suggested to them that the way of the future was the replacement by individual farmsteads with collective ones.

The collective farm envisioned by the Communists was a type of farm that was a supposedly more comprehensive version of an agricultural cooperative. The combined effort of the peasants on the collective farm (kolkhoz) would lead to a more efficient production and a greater surplus, which state-procurement agencies would collect and ship to the towns. Some of this anticipated surplus would then be sold on the international market. Its proceeds would be used to buy sophisticated foreign technology for Soviet industry.

In addition, the Soviet leaders applied a sort of Marxist class analysis to the countryside. Exactly why Stalin and his ilk believed this to be so crucial is not clear. The Boss himself had inspected the halting grain deliveries in Siberia in early 1928 and may have locked on to complaints about more affluent villagers employing their neighbors as hired hands. He may have concluded that these “capitalists” were in the process of marginalizing the poorer peasants.

In 1928–1929, the party identified these rich peasants as kulaks, a term that had stood for greedy and exploitative farmers before 1917. These prerevolutionary kulaks had the reputation of squeezing out their fellow peasants by any means available, including strong-arm tactics and violence. Perhaps that was why they had acquired the moniker, which literally meant “fist.” But such early capitalist farmers had been expropriated and chased from the villages in 1917–1918. The so-called kulak of the 1920s was usually barely better off than his neighbors. He might have been lucky in having several able-bodied sons, whereas his neighbor had no children and had to provide for his enfeebled parents. With the help of such a comparative abundance of labor, the rich peasants were able to market more crops and cattle products than their neighbors. Sometimes, the 1920s Soviet “kulak” owned two horses rather than the usual single nag owned by most peasants. Some peasants had little or no land and could not survive other than by hiring themselves out to richer peasants. Rather than capitalist exploitation, such labor relations amounted to symbiotic mutual support between the slightly richer and the slightly poorer.


The gap between rich and poor was thus much greater in the party’s imagination than in the daily experience of the Soviet peasantry. Barely perceptible, the differentiation between rich and poor in the villages was nevertheless the basis for the Marxist class analysis applied by the Communists. Stalin and his followers argued that kulaks were capitalists, who exploited a rural proletariat of poor peasants and landless laborers. Between these two groups existed a fairly large group of middle peasants who could just make ends meet on their own because they wielded enough (albeit not abundant) land, equipment, and animals. This middling group was allegedly in danger of becoming proletarianized, since it would not be able to survive against kulak competition, according to Communist logic. The undeniable truth of the party’s Marxist analysis would help the middle peasants recognize that their interests lay with the poor peasants and that collectivization was to their benefit.

The Communists began in the course of 1929 to encourage a solution to the supposed class conflict in the villages between kulak capitalists and poor and middling peasants: the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” accompanied the organization of the collective farms. Party and soviet activists, Red Army detachments, and state security officers “helped” or “encouraged” villagers to force kulak households to give up all their property. The collective farms became the new owners of houses, barns, horses, plows, and so on. Kulak families were exiled to remote areas, sometimes in their own province, but more often far away. So-called special settlements were designated by the Soviet regime in 1929 and 1930, to which during the First Five Year Plan perhaps five million people who had been driven from their ancestral homes were exiled. The victims were transported in railroad boxcars and dropped in the most inhospitable areas of northern Russia or Siberia in the middle of winter. Mortality rates were staggering. The Communist authorities used a quota system (imposed from above) to ensure that sufficient kulaks were apprehended and banished. About 5 percent of villagers were thus dispatched. If kulak numbers fell short, people could be arrested as “kulak helpers” to make up the quota. Priests were usually singled out as such.

“Dekulakization” provided collective farms with the buildings, equipment, animals, and land of their unfortunate exiled neighbors. But such proceeds were meager and far from a sufficient basis for the creation of a modern collective farm. The sudden decision to complete the collectivization of all peasant households as soon as possible in the fall and early winter of 1929–1930 complicated matters further. Most peasants slaughtered their horses (and sometimes oxen) during these months, for many were unwilling to surrender their animals to the “socialization” process. Others appear to have believed that the state would provide them with the necessary draft animals and machinery for their farm’s socialized sector before spring sowing. By March, draft power on the farms had dropped drastically: only in the 1950s would Soviet farms once again have as many horses as in 1928. And very few harvest combines or tractors appeared at first in the villages.

Rather than taking any personal blame for the chaos, in a Pravda editorial of March 1930 Stalin personally criticized overzealous activists for being “Dizzy with Success” in collectivizing the peasants. He suggested that these zealots had violated the “voluntary principle” that was supposed to be the premise of joining the kolkhoz. At first, many peasants left the collective farms after Stalin’s criticism, but most soon concluded that they had no alternative but to return. Survival on an individually run farmstead, bereft of draft power and faced with far higher taxation in kind than the kolkhoz, was made virtually impossible. By 1932 the vast majority of Soviet peasants farmed on the kolkhoz.

Meanwhile, few knew how to organize an efficient collective farm. Peasants had not been schooled in drawing up plowing, sowing, and harvesting plans, in soil amelioration, or in ways to improve yields from dairy or meat cattle. Some relief was intended to be offered by regional machine-tractor stations (MTS). These stations housed mechanized equipment (tractors, harvest combines, etc.) and their operators, and rented out their equipment and technological expertise to the kolkhoz (against payment in kind or money). But besides its woefully insufficient stock of tools, machinery was produced in factories according to uniform standards that hardly took into account local circumstances. Machines easily broke down, and usually MTS mechanics hardly knew how to repair or adjust the equipment.

Socialized cattle herds were often neglected at the expense of the one private dairy cow that most households were allowed to keep by law. Collective farmers (kolkhozniks) often gave it no more than a token effort when working in the socialized sector of crop cultivation or animal husbandry. Peasants preferred spending time on the small private plots on which they could grow crops (private cultivation of grain was usually prohibited) for their own consumption. Sometimes the yields of these plots were good enough to sell some surplus crops or milk in nearby town markets.6

Kolkhozniks were supposed to work a set amount of hours in the socialized sector of the farms. A record of these hours was kept by their foremen or forewomen7 (called brigadiers) and the collective farm director and bookkeeper. At the end of the fiscal year (usually in the early months of the calendar year), the farmers received remuneration for the total amount of “workdays” they had earned in the socialist sector of their farm. This wage was partially paid out in kind, from the farm’s production, and partially in money, from the miserly payments made by state procurement agencies for delivered products (and after the kolkhoz had remitted a variety of dues, such as to the MTS for their services). If planned production targets were not met (and grain deliveries to the agencies thus fell short), no money was paid by those agencies. Even in good times under Stalin, collective farmers made less than two hundred rubles per year, which amounted to a quarter of the monetary income of a textile worker in the city. The private plot and private cow came to the kolkhozniks’ rescue, but even they proved sometimes insufficient (and many peasant households had no private cow before the early 1950s). Deprivation and malnourishment were the lot of many.


This pattern showed of course great regional variation, for the climate, soil, and the agricultural traditions across the former tsarist empire remained vastly different. Traditionally the population of what is Kazakhstan today had survived primarily by way of transhumance, that is, they lived as nomads, moving their cattle between summer and winter grazing grounds. Such a way of life did not suit the modern mind-set of the Soviet regime. It preferred to have its subjects reside in the same place, so it could count and control them. The Kazakhs were thus forced to give up their itinerant cattle driving. They slaughtered some of their herds around 1930, while many of the other animals starved, after exhausting the local grazing lands to which their herders were now consigned. Knowing little to nothing about crop cultivation, for which their arid steppe lands were rather poor to begin with, the Kazakhs had no substitute for cattle farming. By 1933, probably one-quarter of the Kazakh population (one million people) had died as a result.

In 1932–1933, another famine raged in Ukraine and southern Russia. Crop yields fell to exceedingly low levels because of a misharvest in 1932. This did not stop the Soviet authorities to demand crop deliveries that were not much lower than in previous years. To collect as much grain as possible, the goverment introduced draconian laws in August 1932 against the “theft of socialist property.” They introduced mandatory sentencing to ten years in labor camp of people who gleaned grain left behind on the fields after harvest. In December 1932, internal passports were introduced; these were issued only to inhabitants of the Soviet Union who were not engaged in agricultural work. Kolkhoz members could thereafter leave their villages only after receiving from the local authorities special permits to depart. They remained without passports until 1977. A second serfdom had descended on the Soviet countryside.

When planning targets were not met in the fall of 1932, grain-requisition units once more appeared in the villages. They sometimes stripped peasant households of the last foodstuffs they had, accusing the peasants of hoarding and sabotage. Perhaps four million people died, most of them in Ukraine. Stalin did not order ruthless treatment of the Ukrainians primarily because he suspected them of harboring anti-Russian sentiments. After all, similar treatment was meted out to Russian peasants living immediately to the north of the Caucasus. But the cruel action against the Ukrainian peasants was at least partially inspired by a desire to browbeat the Ukrainians about their alleged anti-Soviet (anti-Russian) sentiments and stubborn independent spirit.

At one of their meetings in Moscow during the Second World War, Stalin apparently astonished British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) in stating that the early days of the German attack on the USSR were not the worst crisis of his political career: the days of collectivization had been far worse, for then ten million people had died. Stalin did not exaggerate this number. Meanwhile, no serious threat to overthrow him between 1928 and 1934 seems to have materialized.

It is moot whether Stalin and his cronies actually believed that they were creating a socialist kind of agriculture with their crude and callous methods. Cynics might say that the hidden agenda behind collectivization and dekulakization was instead different: the Bolsheviks had followed Marx in mainly showing contempt for the peasants (Marx had in 1848 written of the “idiocy of rural life”). They believed in the superiority of a modern urban culture and set about in 1929 to modernize their country at breakneck speed at virtually any cost in human terms. They needed cheap food for the burgeoning urban working class and goods that could be exported to buy scarce technology abroad. Stalin was apparently fond of the Russian saying “When wood is chopped, chips fly,” a version of “You cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs.” Even more than in Lenin’s case, for Stalin the socialist end justified any means. That socialist modernity was to be accomplished over the dead bodies of some bumpkins should be of no great concern in Stalin’s view, which took into account the greater scheme of human progress.


One can make a compelling case that the Soviet Union could have industrialized as well as, or even better than it did, without the astonishing sacrifice made by the peasantry. During the Five Year Plans (even if the targets set for the first plan were not met, as even official Soviet numbers showed), quantity often came before quality in measuring results in industry. As a result, “Stalinist” industrialization was extremely wasteful.8 Far too many projects were begun at the same time, spreading investments and resources thin. Engineering expertise was in short supply as well. In many of the regions designated as prime centers of industrialization, factory buildings had been erected by 1933. The production of industrially manufactured goods had often barely begun, however, because crucial components of machinery were missing. Such was the case with the Molotov automobile works in the city of Nizhnii Novgorod. There the first cars (which were based on blueprints provided by Ford Motor Company) rolled out of the factory gates more than three years after the first spade went into the ground. A better husbanding of available means might have allowed for a much less tyrannical treatment of the peasants who furnished the food and funds for this crazed industrialization drive.

But the process set in motion in 1929 irreversibly set the Soviet Union on the path to a modern, primarily urban society. During the First Five Year Plan, the working class probably doubled in number, even if the urban proletariat still represented only about a third of the total Soviet workforce by 1932. And the demand for labor was high, as many enterprises were built from the ground up, often largely by hand. Therefore, unemployment, which reached disastrous proportions in the West as a result of the Great Depression at this time, did not exist in the Soviet Union. Naturally, the Soviet leadership trumpeted this allegedly great accomplishment to audiences at home and abroad.

As we saw above, living conditions in the rapidly expanding towns were dire, but it appeared as if in certain parts of urban life a glimpse of the future society of plenty could be had. Public transport and health care were free, even if the quality of both left much to be desired. Factories and mines established day cares for (tellingly) female workers, even if many preferred to leave the care of their offspring to a grandmother. Education was free until the seventh grade, and for talented pupils, scholarships paid for further schooling. Indeed, in 1929 compulsory education for a minimum of four years became mandatory for all children, while in the cities virtually all children attended school for at least seven years. Workers’ clubs organized amateur theater performances and film showings, and in most cities urban workers had a choice of drama theaters and concert halls at nominal prices. Libraries mushroomed. Books, newspapers, and magazines were available at very low costs, and sometimes for free, as were newspapers exhibited on the walls of factories.


Historians, foremost among whom has been Sheila Fitzpatrick, have therefore argued that the Soviet population, at least in the cities, was in the throes of a cultural revolution in the years of the Great Turn (1929–1933 or even 1929–1939). A Soviet version of modern man was forged in this radical upheaval. Whereas the Soviet regime made a variety of cultural amenities available to their subjects, it also actively suppressed cultural manifestations with which it disagreed. Books, theater plays, films, and so on were censored. Eventually, most art was judged according to a rigidly defined aesthetic called socialist realism. In fiction, in a usually linear narrative, protagonists made their appearance as positive and optimistic builders of socialism. These model socialists defied and defeated the leftover specimens of depraved capitalism (and their foreign puppet masters).

Equally important was a full-fledged assault on organized religion, especially on Eastern Slav Orthodoxy and other forms of Christianity. Religion was for the Communists “the opium of the people,” as Marx had called it. It diverted people from understanding their true interest, which was building a good life for everyone in the here and now. Lenin had already begun the attack on the Orthodox Church. At first, the Bolsheviks strictly separated church and state. Then they deprived the Orthodox Church and other religions of all their privileges in 1918 and eventually confiscated the wealth of many religious institutions. In the famine of 1921–1922, silver and gold ornaments, precious icons, and so on were sold abroad in exchange for food. Priests and other religious officials who protested against this “socialist expropriation” were either summarily executed or dispatched to the first labor camps.

In 1929, the antireligious offensive resumed with new force. In most villages, churches were closed (and often converted into storage barns or the administrative and cultural centers of the kolkhoz) and priests arrested as “kulak helpers.” Most monasteries and convents were closed as well, and their occupants were likewise dispatched to camps. Atheism (often entailing the diffusion of scientific ideas about nature and evolution) was heavily propagated by organizations such as the Society for Militant Atheists. By the late 1930s, only four Orthodox bishops remained at liberty.

This recurring antireligious offensive did not remain without effect: by the 1960s few denizens of the European part of the USSR considered themselves Christians, although it is hard to gauge how many preferred to profess atheism publicly while secretly worshipping as Christians. Western visitors to the Soviet Union in those days usually encountered empty churches, in which only a few elderly women seemed to pray. But churchgoing continued to be actively discouraged in the 1960s and 1970s as well, and throughout Soviet history one’s career was jeopardized if one was identified as a religious believer.

What applies to Orthodoxy applies even more strongly to Judaism, Catholicism, or Lutheranism. In the case of Judaism, it should be remembered that the majority of Soviet Jews resided before the Second World War in territories that fell under Nazi occupation after 22 June 1941. Virtually only those Jewish men who served in the Red Army and evaded German capture survived the Holocaust. Synagogues were not rebuilt after the Soviet army drove out the occupiers from areas previously inhabited by Jews. In those territories that escaped Nazi occupation, only a handful of Jewish temples remained open after the Second World War. In contrast, after the war the Soviet Union harbored a fair amount of Catholics and Lutherans who resided in its newly acquired western regions (western Ukraine and the Baltic republics). Religious persecution along the lines of the oppression of the Orthodox Church became common there, even if believers held on to their faith with somewhat greater tenacity than in Russia or Ukraine.

Soviet authorities were more circumspect with Islam, or perhaps somewhat less strenuous in their efforts to destroy this religion. This was more out of necessity than out of choice. Communism never quite gained the same sort of intensively fanatical support in predominantly Muslim regions that it acquired among residents of culturally “European” or Christian regions. Mosques were closed at times as often as churches, but it was evident that many Muslims managed to remain loyal to their faith. They adhered in private to certain crucial rituals behind a loyal and even atheist exterior. Stalin had been familiar with Islam since his childhood and had witnessed its powerful hold in the Caucasus, a fact that perhaps explains a certain roundabout way in his efforts toward its eradication. At the same time, the predominantly Islamic areas of the Soviet Union were usually far more rural than non-Islamic territories, and in the countryside of European Russia, too, Christianity proved more resilient than in the cities. But if need be, Stalin could be just as brutal with Muslims as with Christians. He thus deported all Tatars living on the Crimea (more than 350,000 people) when he decided that they had been collaborating with the Nazis during the war. Several Caucasian Muslim nations, such as the Chechens and Ingush, shared the fate of the Crimean Tatars. But since Stalin also had all Buddhist Kalmyks or Orthodox Crimean Greeks and Bulgarians deported as Nazi collaborators, the marker that doomed these “punished peoples” was ethnicity rather than religion. All these groups ended up in inhospitable regions in Central Asia, where many succumbed.

The cultural revolution thus included enforced atheism. It does seem clear that many Soviet citizens embraced a scientific and nonreligious worldview, once they became acquainted with its outlines, without much coercion. The spread of a secular mind-set among the USSR’s population reflects a more commonly observed trend in modern industrial countries, as in most of Europe or Canada. In this sense, the United States is more of an outlier, for it has until recently avoided this sharp increase in irreligiosity. Meanwhile, one wonders how many Soviets agreed with those who argued that God could not exist, because no god could be so cruel as to allow the boundless human suffering twentieth-century Soviet Russia experienced.


After 1929, a burgeoning network of concentration camps appeared across the Soviet Union. The Great Turn made the number of camps balloon, as millions rather than thousands were sentenced to camp for a variety of “anti-Soviet” or “counterrevolutionary” crimes. Few were released as innocent, and courts began to process cases of political or other crime in the manner of Soviet factory workers handling goods on conveyor belts fulfilling or overfulfilling the plan. A great variety of courts, meanwhile, sentenced people. Some fell under the auspices of the State Procuracy. Military courts dealt with cases that involved state treason, a loosely defined rubric applied to many of those prosecuted. Others were processed by special tribunals of the State Political Administration (Russian abbreviation: GPU), the secret or political police, which from 1934 was known as the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD). It was then rechristened the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) in 1946. Finally in 1953, it became the Committee for State Security (KGB); despite its notoriety in the West, the KGB was by far the most benevolent incarnation of the Soviet security police.


Figure 7.2. Book cover celebrating building the White Sea Canal, in fact built by prisoners, 1930s (Slavic and Baltic Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations)

The NKVD arrested people and confined them in jails to await trial. Prisons became ever more crowded during the 1930s. To speed up the processing of cases by the courts, and to justify their feverish activity uncovering treasonous conspiracies (for which they almost always lacked convincing material evidence), NKVD agents usually tried to force the accused to sign a written confession. In almost all such statements, the accused admitted to a host of crimes against the Soviet state and implicated a great number of others. The latter could then be arrested in their turn.

Such confessions, however, were seldom signed voluntarily. The NKVD became extremely adept at wearing down those awaiting trial and coercing them to admit to things of which they were innocent. Harmless conversations were turned into evidence of plotting terrorism and the overthrow of the regime. But apart from sophistry, torture of the accused was the norm. Sleep deprivation was a mild example of the methods the security police applied. Interrogations were conducted during the night, and inmates were not allowed to lie down in the daytime. Reprisals against family members were threatened. Many of the accused were mercilessly beaten. Sharing cells with people maimed by NKVD officers convinced many to avoid being tortured by placing their signature at the end of a statement in which they confessed to a welter of fictive crimes. Armed with such confessions, the NKVD had little problem in having the courts dispatch the accused to a lengthy term in labor camps.

The labor camps also fell under the authority of the NKVD. They were organized in its Main Administration of camps, abbreviated in Russian as Gulag. Concentration camp inmates built houses and factories in cities, dug canals, laid down railroad track, cut trees, and mined ore. They were fed meals that left them severely malnourished. They worked in freezing temperatures, lacking adequate warm clothing and footwear. Convicts slept in barracks that were insufficiently heated. Camps were guarded by NKVD troops, but the camp administrations left much of the pecking order to the convicts themselves. Among them, the so-called social deviants (ordinary criminals) ruled through violence and intimidation. Criminal gangs lorded it over the “political” convicts, forcing the latter to give up their warm clothing and boots, and to perform most of the hard physical labor. The camps thus became death traps, and the mortality reached enormous proportions during the 1930s and 1940s. Because trustworthy statistics do not exist, we can only guess at the number of people who died in the camps between 1928 and 1953–1954. The camp population rose from tens of thousands in early 1929 to more than two million before, and three million after, the Second World War, and perhaps twenty million people spent some time in a camp between 1929 and 1953. That amounts to one in eight or one in nine Soviet inhabitants; how many of them died is unclear. Of course, many others lived in special settlement regions, as did many of the kulaks arrested around 1930 and the “punished peoples” deported at the end of the Second World War.

Chilling accounts about the Gulag camps have been produced by Soviet writers, such as the former camp inmate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He suggested that if one looks at a representation on a map of the USSR of the thousands of labor camps, it resembles an island archipelago. Thus he named his magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago (published in the West in the 1970s, after Solzhenitsyn’s deportation from the Soviet Union, and in Russia and the former Soviet states in 1988–1989). Besides Solzhenitsyn’s work, equally terrifying accounts have been written by Aleksandr Gorbatov (1892–1973), Varlam Shalamov (1907–1982), Evgeniia Ginzburg (1896–1980), Lev Kopelev (1912–1997), and others. And Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem” may be the emblematic poem representing the anguish of those left in uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones after their arrest. Similarly harrowing are the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelshtam (1899–1980) about her life with her husband Osip, who died on his way to the Kolyma camps in 1938.


Solzhenitsyn has argued that no one single period in Stalin’s lifetime stands out as a period of exceptionally harsh repressive policies. He identified various waves of increased mass arrests, either across the country, as in 1932–1933 and 1937–1938, or in certain regions, as in western Ukraine and western Belarus (then newly annexed to the USSR) in 1939–1941, and in the Baltic republics in 1940–1941 (incorporated into the USSR in 1940). But Solzhenitsyn argued that arrests of those opposed to the Soviet regime were always a normal part of Soviet life between 1917 and 1956. For Solzhenitsyn, arbitrary arrest predated and postdated Stalin. The Russian writer thereby took exception to a historical narrative imposed by the Soviet leaders after Stalin’s death. It suggested that all was going well in the Soviet Union until Stalin began to order the arrest, sentencing, and execution of former Communist Party members in 1936.

Stalin’s successor Khrushchev presented this reading of Stalin’s failings during his “Secret Speech” at the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956.9 Khrushchev argued that the policies of collectivization and industrialization had been correct and set the USSR on the road to communism. If he had criticized Stalin for the human suffering and economic fiasco that those policies entailed, he would have pulled the rug out from under his own feet and from that of his comrades in the post-Stalin leadership. Thus, Khrushchev’s criticism was highly selective. As Western observers pointed out in 1956 after the Secret Speech was leaked, Khrushchev did not even admit to the farcical nature of the show trials held in Moscow in 1936, 1937, and 1938, and the innocence of the accused who were convicted and sentenced by them. In these trials, some of Lenin’s closest comrades, such as Zinov'ev, Kamenev, and Piatakov, confessed of having plotted against the Soviet Union under the command of the exiled Trotsky. In 1956, those accused were not reinstated, at least in part because they had questioned the necessity of the Great Turn in 1929.

Solzhenitsyn’s argument about the constant nature of arrests of alleged (and sometimes real) opponents of the Soviet Union is largely correct. Records made available to historians in the 1990s and 2000s tell of staggering numbers of people being persecuted by the GPU or NKVD in the 1930s and 1940s. They also attest to Lenin’s bloodlust. But Lenin’s ruthlessness (as evident especially in the Civil War but also in episodes after that conflict had ended) pales against Stalin’s. Even if in 1922 Lenin ordered a trial staged against some of the leaders of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR), who were accused and convicted of imaginary plots against the government, the SR leaders were still allowed to deny the charges and received mild sentences. In Stalin’s trials, the accused (who had been tortured and blackmailed) admitted to heinous crimes and received the “highest measure,” execution by firing squad.

While the Moscow Trials of 1936, 1937, and 1938 were almost verbatim reported in Pravda, waves of mass arrests of staggering proportions were unleashed, intended to catch any potential or real, current or former, foe of the regime. There were thus mass arrests of Poles, Germans, Koreans, Finns, Latvians, and Estonians who lived in exile, or had merely found employment, in the Soviet Union. The rationale behind these campaigns seems to have been that they might form a “fifth column” if the USSR went to war with their countries of origin (doubly ironic in the Korean case, as their country was occupied by Japan). There were mass “operations” conducted by the NKVD against “former kulaks,” former tsarist officials decried as “Whites,” economic “saboteurs” and “wreckers,” and former political opponents such as surviving ex-Mensheviks and SRs. Those identified as supporters of former opponents of Stalin—the “Trotskyites,” “Zinov'evites,” “right deviationists,” or as state prosecutor Andrei Vyshinskii (1883–1954) said at one show trial, “left-right-wing freaks”—were rounded up as well. Arrest in 1937–1938 virtually always meant conviction, even if the only pieces of evidence entering the record of most cases were the confessions by the accused. It is certain that in 1937 and 1938 minimally 692,000 Soviet residents were executed, and more than 1.7 million people arrested. Those who avoided execution ended up in camps. The numbers were likely higher, for some cases did not even enter the records (for example, if the accused died under torture). The scale of this butchery was a world record in absolute numbers; no rulers had ever killed so many people in any country during peacetime. Soon, however, others were to rival and surpass Stalin as the bloodiest mass murderer ever known.

The Gulag camp inmates became so numerous that the NKVD was a substantial contributor to the economic production of the USSR. At the same time, the massive campaigns of arresting, processing, and guarding hundreds of thousands absorbed a lot of labor. Tens of thousands of NKVD operatives and guards were deployed to handle arrests as well as those in prison, on transport, or at the camps. And a considerable number of NKVD agents were busy shooting people (the average number of executions in the USSR during the height of the purge neared 1,500 per day!). This was a rather costly use of valuable manpower and added nothing to the country’s economic productivity.10 The yield from slave labor is low, according to most economists (including Marx). It certainly was in the Soviet labor camps, because most work was done manually, without machinery. People suffered from exposure to the brutal climate and received extremely low food rations. In addition, the arrests of 1937–1938 disproportionally affected the better educated, such as engineers, and other highly skilled employees and workers. This brain drain, too, began to undermine the economy.

In November 1938, Stalin (as general secretary of the party) and Molotov (as Sovnarkom chairman) announced to party organizations and NKVD agents that the “mass operations” had ended. In a telegram to the highest local leaders throughout the country, they stated that the goal of the purges had been accomplished and added that evidence had emerged that arrests had become indiscriminate and excessive. In other words, Stalin pretended that, as during the early stages of collectivization, enthusiasm had once more gotten the better of officials involved in the campaigns. A scapegoat was found in NKVD People’s Commissar Nikolai Yezhov, who was arrested in early 1939, after many of his subordinates had already been apprehended. Others committed suicide before they could be captured. Yezhov’s successor, Beria, restored the more routine manner of police operations in the Soviet Union that had prevailed before 1937.

The so-called Great Terror, as the British historian Robert Conquest dubbed the massacre in the 1960s, thus came to a close in late 1938. Solzhenitsyn was correct, however, in suggesting that mass operations did not cease; they just became more selective, singling out various groups rather than singling out the entire country. Meanwhile, almost all of those accused of conspiring against Soviet power did in fact no such thing as it was by the middle of the 1930s wholly impossible to engage in plotting in this police state. As an act of protest by a desperate individual, the murder of Sergei Kirov in Leningrad in 1934 was the last of a kind. The great majority of those apprehended therefore never saw their arrest coming: most were taken by surprise when they heard the usually nocturnal knock on the door.

The Great Terror appears to have targeted primarily urban residents.11 The countryside had already been “purged” between 1929 and 1933. In the close quarters of the cities, any plotting was difficult. Everywhere informers lurked, egged on by their handlers in the NKVD who tried to meet the arrest quotas that had been imposed on them (indeed, ultimately by Stalin himself, as archival documents show). Although the evidence about police informers is somewhat sketchy, it is likely that from the middle of the 1930s onward, at least one in ten adults, forcibly or voluntarily, regularly delivered reports about “sedition” to the NKVD. Most of this amounted to passing on incautious remarks, malicious gossip, and even made-up stories. Failing to notice any dissent could lead to the arrest of the informer on suspicion of harboring an anti-Soviet attitude. Few, meanwhile, were unaware of the presence of these stool pigeons.

Historians continue to debate how much those who stayed outside of the claws of the NKVD believed in the guilt of their friends, neighbors, and coworkers, or of those about whose arrest they read in Pravda. No uniform answer can be given to this question, it appears. Factories and institutions organized mass meetings of workers and employees, during which party activists tried to whip up a frenzy among their audience.12 Sometimes, indeed, participants in such meetings demanded in a sort of trance the heads of the exiled Trotsky and his fellow conspirators who had admitted to heinous crimes at the Moscow Trials.

Soviet citizens did not have any other means to help them assess the veracity of the news about the show trials than what was fed to them by the Soviet media. Nowhere were reports published about the scale of the arrests in 1937 and 1938. Undoubtedly, people witnessed or heard about the arrests of colleagues, acquaintances, friends, and relatives, but many were apprehended during the night, darkness hiding the massive scale of events. Even to close family members, the NKVD divulged little to nothing about the reasons someone had been hauled off to jail. Many seem to have thought that those arrested probably had been guilty of some sort of trespass, while relatives usually believed in the innocence of their spouse, children, sibling, or parent who had been apprehended. They earnestly awaited their release, usually to no avail.

What was behind the “purge” of Soviet society and the Communist Party during the Great Terror? As with many things about the Great Terror, we do not have a fully convincing answer to that question. Yet it seems that Molotov may have been frank when, long after his ouster in 1957 from the leadership, he declared that the arrests and executions of 1937–1938 had a preventative purpose. In the middle of the 1930s, Stalin, together with people such as Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, and Zhdanov, believed that the Soviet Union housed countless people who hated the regime. These foes were primarily those who had lost out in the grandiose transformation of the country since its foundation in 1917. They ranged from monarchists to kulaks to Trotskyites. If the Soviet Union were confronted by a major crisis such as a foreign invasion, these people might betray it, as they were bound to feel little loyalty to a country that had ruined them. In league with the foreign enemy, they would work toward the collapse of the country from the inside. According to Molotov, it was better to rid the Soviet Union of these people before war broke out.

And by late 1936, war seemed in the offing because of the saber rattling by the Nazis and the outbreak of a civil war in Spain. Stalin had read the relevant parts of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He anticipated that Hitler, sooner than later, would attempt to destroy the “Jewish-Bolshevik” state the book had denounced, where “Jewish vermin” lorded it over Slavic and other “subhumans.” Hitler further announced in Mein Kampf that he would enslave the Soviet citizenry and work most of Eastern Europe’s population to death. The vacuum thus created was then to be filled by the German “master race.”

Ultimately, Stalin was to make a crucial error regarding Hitler, but this was not because he ever discounted the German threat. The mistakes Stalin made in 1941 show instead how on more than one occasion flights of fancy replaced a sober assessment of the reality of the situation. In the spring of 1941, Stalin convinced himself that Hitler would not attack the Soviet Union but would wait at least another year. This was what Stalin wanted to happen, for his country would be ready for war only by 1942. Once the last days of spring arrived in 1941, he seemed to be proven right; by the third week of June, it surely was too late in the year for an invasion, given the merciless Russian climate and difficult terrain. Although Stalin did not believe that Hitler would scrupulously honor the Ten-Year Non-Aggression Pact concluded in August 1939, he deluded himself in wishing for a later German attack. As a result, his country was woefully unprepared for war to break out on 22 June 1941.

Apart from ignoring the extensive intelligence that came to his desk about an impending German invasion in 1941, Stalin also undermined his country’s readiness for war in another crucial respect. As part of the Great Terror, he ordered widespread arrests within the senior brass of the Red Army. Military officers who had earned their stripes in the Civil War and who had often attended German military exercises that were (in defiance of the terms of the Versailles Treaty) conducted on Soviet soil before 1933 were killed in great number. By the end of the army purges, Stalin had killed not only one of the earliest and best military theorists on tank warfare, Mikhail Tukhachevskii, but also Vasilii Bliukher (1889–1938), who had defeated the Japanese armies invading the Soviet Union at Lake Khasan in 1938, and Iakov Smushkevich (1902–1941), an air force commander who had organized the Spanish Republic’s air force in the civil war in 1937 and 1938. Grigorii Shtern (1900–1941), a general who had organized the Spanish Republican defense and beat back another Japanese invasion in 1939 at Khalkin Gol, was murdered in a later purge. And these were only the most senior brilliant commanders Stalin had killed. He was left in 1941 with an army commanded by officers loyal to him but bereft of the talent of such military experts.


While standards of living were abysmally low during the second half of the 1930s and millions languished in labor camps or jails, the Soviet leadership announced that it was making great strides on the road to a free society of equals. Full employment prevailed; health care and education were free and available to all. A facade was upheld that tried to advertise the Soviet Union as the most democratic country in the world.

Measures were taken to make the Soviet Union into an exemplary democracy and thus increase the population’s sense of belonging. Perhaps some Soviet citizens looked no further than the Potemkin village that was the new (Stalin) Constitution promulgated in 1936, but this set of basic All-Union laws seems to have been introduced primarily for foreign consumption. The Stalin Constitution granted the right to vote to all adults, irrespective of gender. It did away with the greater weight that had been given to working-class votes and the exclusion of certain “former people” (tsarist officials, priests, etc.) from the right to vote. The membership Union parliament, the Supreme Soviet, was from 1936 directly chosen by the Soviet population. Elections took place every four years for its Soviet of the Unions (a sort of lower house or chamber of deputies) and its Soviet of Nationalities (a sort of upper house or Senate). These All-Union soviets rarely met and were usually represented by a much smaller body, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, of whom the chair was the official Soviet head of state (until 1946, Mikhail Kalinin, and from 1946 to 1953, Nikolai Shvernik [1888–1970]). The Supreme Soviet formerly appointed the Sovnarkom, legislated, and officially held the government accountable for its policies. There were also soviets of the republics and of rural districts and cities, which were also elected every four years.

But this highly democratic structure was a sham in practice. The Communist Party handpicked all candidates for the soviets at all levels. In every election, only one candidate (representing a “bloc of party and nonparty communists”) stood for office per electoral district. And whereas “former people” received the right to vote under the new constitution, few of them remained at liberty or were even alive after the Great Terror. The Stalin Constitution explicitly recognized the Communist Party as the leading force in society. The party, it stated, was made up of the most advanced representatives of the working class, collective farmers, and “toiling intelligentsia.” The party, meanwhile, met less and less often in All-Union gatherings. In the 1930s, only three party congresses were staged, and the number of Central Committee plenary meetings fell drastically. Even the Politburo decided most matters by correspondence or telephone calls rather than in formal meetings. In effect, four or five men who gathered in Stalin’s proximity (in his Kremlin office, on his Moscow estates, or at his holiday resort in the Caucasus) decided most of the important matters, on the basis of materials submitted to them by the departments of the Central Committee Secretariat.

The Stalin Constitution claimed that all different ethnic groups in the USSR were great friends of each other. The example set by the Russians led them in gentle fashion to a radiant future. It was argued that the Russians were destined to be such a beacon because they were slightly farther ahead on the road to universal enlightenment than the other Soviet peoples. It is not quite certain why Stalin began to soft-pedal the previous strictly observed equality of all Soviet nations in official rhetoric. Apart from his growing worry about Stalin’s acquisition of too much power, Lenin had been worried at the end of his life about Stalin’s “Great Russian chauvinism,” as well as that of other non-Russian Soviet leaders. In a sharp observation, Lenin argued that those who adopted the Russian language and culture such as Stalin were in the habit of becoming more Russian than the Russians themselves. They identified too strenuously with Russia to prove that they belonged.

This ultra-Russian quality of Stalin (whose spoken Russian meanwhile betrayed a clear Georgian accent) began to leave a more marked imprint on Soviet cultural policy in the 1930s. At the same time, the language of communication within the All-Union Russian Communist Party was Russian, and in most republics Russian was the second language. Russian was the lingua franca through which an Azeri could communicate with a Kazakh or Ukrainian. It was, in other words, practical to have Soviet citizens learn Russian. In the 1930s, education, literature, and theater in the national languages lost terrain to the propagation of accomplishments of the Russian nation and culture in the present and past. No longer were Russians portrayed as imperialist oppressors of the non-Russians, or tsarist Russia as a prisonhouse of nations. Thus, many of the tsars were rehabilitated in the Soviet version of Imperial Russia’s past. The expansion of the Russian Empire was interpreted as a positive step that allowed non-Russians to ascend to a higher stage of civilization. Artists from Pushkin to Tchaikovsky became All-Union cultural icons rather than specific Russian ones. Since most Soviet inhabitants learned Russian, Russian literature was far more frequently read by non-Russians than non-Russian literature was read by Russians (and translations into Russian were not as numerous as the other way around). Soviet culture blended therefore with Russian culture in many respects.


Academic historians do not usually believe that history is predestined, for such a view amounts to believing in a sort of predetermined unfolding of a divine plan. Perhaps this allows us to ponder some counterfactual history. This is useful, because voices (including Stalin’s own in the official party history issued in 193813) argue that the Great Turn and the accompanying massacre were inevitable. They draw comparisons with the industrialization of Western countries, which also involved prohibitive human cost in the form of slums, abysmal wages, child labor, disease, early deaths, and so on. Many have pointed out that by the middle of the 1950s, the Soviet Union definitively overcame periodic famine and achieved universal literacy as a result of the profound transformation of the previous thirty years. Everyone had some sort of housing in the Soviet Union and had access to some basic health care that was free. There was virtually no unemployment. The Soviet record outshines that of countries such as Brazil, India, Pakistan, or Mexico, according to this analysis.

And, in addition, the Soviet Union had been responsible for the ultimate defeat of the formidable Nazi war machine. In sum, for many politicians in the past and even for a few historians today, the Soviet Union did offer a model of development that offered a viable alternative road to modernization different from Western-style capitalist industrialization. The Soviet model certainly attracted many political leaders in the Third World of developing countries during the 1960s and 1970s, who often adopted economic policies that took their cue from the Soviet Five Year Plans (as in India, for example). Some went further and created a one-party state, where political freedom took a backseat to economic priorities (in Ghana or Syria, for example). Others went even further than that and adopted the Soviet model wholesale, including the killing of numerous opponents (North Korea, Ethiopia, Cuba, and Cambodia). While government economic planning is not without its use, the necessity of a country’s modernization can never justify such “killing fields”: from 1917 to 1953, as we saw before, countless millions of inhabitants of the Soviet Union lost their lives to domestic conflict or regime policy.14 The Soviet model of development was a fiasco, and it certainly has been an unmitigated disaster wherever else it was copied. The famines of Communist Ethiopia, North Korea, China, or Cambodia align with those of Soviet Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

And although the Nazis and their allies should be primarily blamed for the indiscriminate slaughter on the “Eastern Front” between 1941 and 1945, Stalin could hardly have done worse on the eve of the Nazi invasion in terms of preparing his country’s defense. A greater degree of readiness would likely have saved millions of lives, as would have judicious retreats of the Soviet military before the advancing Germans in 1941. An acknowledgment that millions of Soviet troops had been captured, so that they could be considered POWs and treated under the protection of the International Red Cross, would have additionally saved countless lives. Thus, apart from the deaths from the Civil War, the 1921–1922 famine, the 1929–1930 dekulakization, the 1932–1933 famine, the 1937–1938 Great Purge, and various subsequent waves of killing, millions of war deaths can be blamed on Stalin’s failings. Such a massacre would not likely have taken place if Lenin had accepted the results of the elections for the Constituent Assembly in November 1917, which gave a majority to the Socialist Revolutionaries, and had resigned with his government. Instead, Red sailors sent the deputies home.

The question lingers: what would have happened if Stalin had died in 1925 or 1926, like Trotsky’s successor as People’s Commissar of War, Mikhail Frunze (1885–1925), or the founder of the Cheka, Feliks Dzerzhinskii (1877–1926)? Would Zinov'ev and Kamenev, or Trotsky, or Bukharin have unleashed a modernization program that involved so much suffering and violence? It seems highly plausible that the first three and even Bukharin would have engaged in a renewed offensive in the countryside to increase grain deliveries and “socialize” farming in one form or other; they harbored such plans in the 1920s, and it is difficult to see how they could have otherwise found the resources to fund any stepped-up industrialization.

But would they have decided to exterminate the kulaks or to leave the starving Ukrainians, Russians, and Kazakhs to their fate in 1932–1933? Perhaps because of the contents of the massive amounts of writing Trotsky produced after he was exiled in 1929, one likes to believe that he had maintained some semblance of a moral being, and to answer in the negative. Certainly, unleashing the Great Terror seems something that only Stalin could have concocted among the Soviet chiefs of the 1920s who fought for Lenin’s mantle. One can be more firmly convinced than in the case of collectivization that Trotsky or Bukharin would not have acted as rashly and cruelly as Stalin did. Trotsky and the others, finally, might also have been more vigilant in tracking, and realistic in interpreting, Hitler’s moves.


Figure 7.3. The murdered Trotsky in Mexico, August 1940

A perhaps more intriguing question occupies historians as well: what if the revolution of 1917 had never happened? For that to have transpired, the tsarist empire should probably not have entered the First World War. The Russian filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin (b. 1936) and, again, Solzhenitsyn have argued that in that event Russia might have been able to modernize in another, less radical way, avoiding all the bloodshed of the Stalinist path to modernization. They appear to have had a point.


1. In Soviet parlance, the party congresses were referred to in capital letters as, allegedly, their convocation often marked important milestones on the road to communism; this habit has been adopted here.

2. This was the name of honor given to Lazare Carnot (1753–1823), who organized the French revolutionary armies into a force that defeated the best-drilled armies of Europe in the 1790s.

3. Perhaps this explains why Trotsky felt obliged to declare during the 1920s that he lived by the maxim “my party, right or wrong,” which seemed somewhat unnatural to say for such an arrogant type.

4. Piatakov’s name as one of the future leaders was surprising, since he did not occupy any senior leadership post at the time.

5. Their enmity originated in the Civil War and the Soviet-Polish War, when Stalin had repeatedly disobeyed orders by commander in chief Trotsky.

6. These markets were permitted because they offered foodstuffs otherwise unavailable, as the state distribution system failed to supply most cities adequately with a diverse assortment of goods.

7. After the Second World War especially, many kolkhozes were almost entirely dependent on women’s labor. But whereas many women became brigadiers, few were appointed to direct the farms.

8. “Stalinist” was a laudatory term that came into Soviet use in the early 1930s.

9. To Stalin’s crimes Khrushchev added his strategic blundering during the lead-up to the German invasion of the USSR in 1941 and some of his postwar “purging” of close comrades in whom Stalin suddenly lost faith. See also the next chapter.

10. A few women worked for the NKVD, but they formed a very small percentage.

11. The exception is some of the persecution campaigns of certain nationalities, such as the Koreans.

12. This induced frenzy inspired George Orwell for certain episodes in 1984.

13. This was the History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks): Short Course, published in installments in Pravda in 1938 and in book form in multiple editions and languages from 1939 onward. Stalin was its main editor, even if he preferred to have the work appear as collectively written by a “commission of the Central Committee,” whose composition was not further identified.

14. The term “killing fields” derives from the locations where the remains of victims of the ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge were found after the fall of that particularly odious Cambodian regime.


Translated Primary Sources

Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. Translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Dimitrov, Georgi. The Diary of Georgi Dimitrov. Translated by Jane T. Hedges, Timothy D. Sergay, and Irina Faion. Edited by Ivo Banac. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Getty, J. Arch, and Oleg V. Naumov. The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932–1939. Translated by Benjamin Sher. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

Ginzburg, Evgeniia. Journey into the Whirlwind. Translated by Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward. New York: Harcourt, 1967.

History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks): Short Course. London: Greenwood Press, 1976.

Khlevniuk, Oleg. The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror. Translated by Vadim A. Staklo. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

Mandelshtam, Nadezhda. Hope against Hope: A Memoir. Translated by Max Hayward. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

Shalamov, Varlam. Kolyma Tales. Translated by John Glad. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. 3 vols. New York: Harper & Row, 1974, 1978.

Stalin, Joseph. The Stalin-Kaganovich Correspondence, 1931–36. Translated by Steven Shabad. Edited by R. W. Davies et al. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

———. Stalin’s Letters to Molotov, 1925–1936. Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. Edited by Lars T. Lih, Oleg V. Naumov, and Oleg V. Khlevniuk. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

Trotsky, Leon. My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography. Translation of Moia Zhizn'. New York: Pathfinder, 1970.

Scholarly Literature

Alexopoulos, Golfo. Stalin’s Outcasts: Aliens, Citizens and the Soviet State, 1926–1936. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Chatterjee, Choi. Celebrating Women: Gender Festival Culture and Bolshevik Ideology, 1910–1939. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.

Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Davies, R. W., and Stephen G. Wheatcroft. The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931–1933. Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Cultural Front: Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

———. Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Halfin, Igal. From Darkness to Light: Class, Consciousness and Salvation in Revolutionary Russia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.

Hellbeck, Jochen. Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Hoffmann, David. Peasant Metropolis: Social Identities in Moscow, 1929–1941. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Keller, Shoshana. To Moscow, Not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign against Islam in Central Asia, 1917–1941. New York: Praeger, 2001.

Khlevniuk, Oleg. Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Kotkin, Stephen. Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Kuromiya, Hiroaki. Freedom and Terror in the Donbas: A Ukrainian-Russian Borderland, 1870s–1990s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

———. Stalin: Profiles in Power. New York: Longman, 2005.

Lewin, Moshe. Lenin’s Last Struggle. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Petrov, Nikita, and Marc Jansen, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner: People’s Commissar Nikolai Ezhov, 1895–1940. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2002.

Ree, Erik van. The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin: A Study in Twentieth-Century Revolutionary Patriotism. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Scott, John. Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Service, Robert. Stalin: A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2005.

———. Trotsky. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2009.

Viola, Lynn. The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Voslensky, Michael. Nomenklatura: Anatomy of the Soviet Ruling Class. London: Bodley Head, 1984.

Weiner, Douglas R. Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation and Cultural Revolution in Russia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

Werth, Nicolas. Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.


“Memorial,” society to commemorate the victims of Soviet communism and defense of human rights and freedoms: http://www.memo.ru/ (in Russian)


Bed and Sofa. DVD. Directed by Abram Room and Vsevolod Pudovkin. Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment, 2012.

Burnt by the Sun. DVD. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Culver City, CA: Sony, 2003.

Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2. Amazon Instant Video. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Venice, CA: Egami, 2012.

Man with a Movie Camera. DVD. Directed by Dziga Vertov. New York: Kino, 2010.

Quiet Flows the Don. DVD. Directed by Sergei Gerasimov. New York: Kino, 2007.

Rossiia, kotoruiu my poteriali [The Russia That We Lost]. Documentary (Russian only). Directed by Stanislav Govorukhin. Moscow: Mosfilm, 1992.

Vlast' Solovetskaia. VHS documentary. Directed by Marina Goldovskaia. Moscow: Sovexportfilm, 1988.

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