* The Nazi-Soviet conflict was rooted in the rise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under Josef Stalin as a threat to Europe. Stalin had not appeared to be a natural leader in the early days of the Soviet regime, but a combination of deviousness, ruthlessness, and a complete lack of ethics brought him to the top. From his position at the tip of the pyramid, Stalin created a society rooted in terror and oppression.
* The name of Josef Stalin is recognized by all as arguably the most powerful, successful, and brutal tyrant of the 20th century, but his origins hardly hinted at what he would become.
Although Stalin's life is carpeted with layers of half-truths, myths, and lies, he is believed to have been born in Gori, Georgia, then part of the Tsarist Russian empire, on 21 December 1879, which by the "old calendar" then in use was 9 December 1879. He was the only surviving child of Vissarion and Yekaterina Dzugashvili, a cobbler and housecleaner respectively. What kind of an upbringing it was is unclear. The family was without doubt poor, but though some believe that Vissarion Dzugashvili was a drunken and brutal father, there is no strong evidence that he was any rougher than was the norm for his place in society, and his son never made much of any childhood problems. It is known that Josef was raised speaking Georgian and did not learn Russian, a much different language, until he was about 8 or 9. He would speak Russian with a strong Georgian accent to the end of his days, long after he had turned his back on all things Georgian.
The young Josef Dzugashvili demonstrated a youthful bent towards theological studies. He excelled at his efforts, and in 1894 won a scholarship to attend a seminary in Tiflis, now Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where he worked to become an Eastern Orthodox minister. He came of age there, becoming a young man described as strong, with big hands, but short, only about 162 centimeters (5 feet 4 inches) tall. He would always be self-conscious about his height, later in his prime wearing platform shoes; ensuring that he had a wooden step to stand on when he gave speeches; and making very sure that official photographs did nothing to suggest his short stature. His left arm was stiff and shorter than his right, the result of a childhood injury, and his face was pocked with smallpox scars, the result of a near-fatal struggle with the disease in his youth.
His coming of age in Tiflis was not merely physical but intellectual. Once in the big city, he was exposed to radical ideas popular among the student community that were hardly heard of in Gori. As if to push him in that direction, the seminary's rules were strict and absurdly hidebound, even going so far as to ban the reading of "subversive" literature by the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; students who were seen as suspicious were spied on, and harassed mercilessly. It was not an environment that instilled respect for authority. He gradually discarded his Christianity in favor of a more modern religion: Marxism.
* Josef Dzugashvili almost ready to graduate from the seminary when he was expelled in 1899. He gravitated towards the life of a professional revolutionary, holding down various jobs while he spread the gospel of Karl Marx among the Georgian proletariat. The Tsarist police had little patience for his activities and arrested him in April 1902. After stints in jail in Georgia, he was exiled to Siberia in July 1903. Tsarist exile in Siberia might have sounded harsh, but it was, particularly in comparison with later standards, easy-going and not very strict. He escaped and returned to Georgia in early 1904.
In 1903, the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labor Party had split into two factions, the "Mensheviks" and the "Bolsheviks". The Bolsheviks were the more extreme group, led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who had taken the name of "Lenin". Although Dzugashvili played no significant role in the Russian 1905 Revolution, he met Lenin late at a congress late in that year, and gradually became a hardcore Bolshevik. He may have participated in a number of heists intended to provide funding for the party, but like so much of Stalin's life the facts are murky.
Dzugashvili married a Georgian woman named Yekaterina Svanide that same year, 1905. Not much is known about the marriage other than that she bore him a son, Yakov, in 1907, and then died later that year. Yakov went into the care of his maternal grandparents while his father continued his work for the Bolsheviks -- to be arrested again in 1908, and sentenced to exile in Siberia for a second time. He escaped once more in 1909, to be arrested and exiled for a third time in 1910, serving out the remainder of his sentence and being released in June 1911. Under the terms of his parole, he was not allowed to go to Saint Petersburg, Moscow, or the Caucasus, but he went to Saint Petersburg anyway. The Tsarist police arrested him for a fourth time in late 1911 and packed him off to Siberia again.
In 1912, while Dzugashvili was in exile in Siberia, Lenin, then in Prague, formally split his Bolsheviks off from the Mensheviks, and formed a party Central Committee. Although Lenin had misgivings about Dzugashvili, finding him crude, quarrelsome, and overbearing, the Bolsheviks were not doing well at the time, and Dzugashvili had undoubted drive and ability. Lenin made him a member of the Central Committee. Dzugashvili was pleased with the news, celebrating his promotion by escaping in March 1912, and traveling to Saint Petersburg. He was arrested in May 1912, to be shipped back to Siberia for a fifth time. He escaped again during the summer.
Dzugashvili had been known for some time by his colleagues in the revolutionary movement as "Koba", meaning "the Boss", in honor or derision of his bossy ways. Some sources claim this nickname went back to his childhood. He had also used a number of pseudonyms in his writings in revolutionary newspapers, including "Stalin", meaning "Steel". Over the next few years, he would become so fond of this name that it would become the name everyone knew him by. "Dzugashvili", after all, was something of a mouthful. Even in 1915 Lenin had to ask a colleague to "find out the name of Koba -- Josef D. ... We have forgotten it."
Stalin went to Vienna in 1913, only to be arrested on his return in March, and shipped off, for the sixth and last time, to Siberia, to a very remote town from which escape was difficult. He adjusted to the relaxed life in exile. He had a remarkable freedom of movement, even going to regional meetings of Marxists. He may have had an affair with a local woman and fathered a bastard, though once again details are lacking. After Russia went to war with the Central Powers in 1914, Stalin had to submit to a medical examination to determine if he should be drafted into the Tsar's army, but he was rejected on account of his bad arm and other defects.
In March 1917 (February by the old calendar), the government of Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown, leading to a chaotic period in which factions fought for power. Stalin and other Marxist exiles went to Petrograd -- previously Saint Petersburg, later Leningrad; in the present day, Saint Petersburg again -- where he became a staff member for the party newspaper, "Pravda (Truth)".
In November 1917 (October in the old calendar), the Bolsheviks seized control. Lenin knew that his new Bolshevik state would not survive if the Central Powers continued their war in the East, so he pushed for a peace agreement at almost any price, signing the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, which ceded control of vast areas of what had been eastern Imperial Russia, from Finland to the Ukraine, to the Central Powers. The Central Powers were forced to sue for peace in the fall of that year and the treaty would then be repudiated, though the rearrangement of the map of Eastern Europe meant that lands such as Poland and Finland would become independent.
The end of World War I did not mean peace in Russia. A full-blown civil war broke out in the summer of 1918, with Bolshevik "Red" forces grappling with larger but more poorly organized reactionary "White" forces. It was a particularly dirty sort of war, with each side striving to outmatch the other in ruthlessness and brutality. Despite the fact that the Whites were supported by Britain and, to a lesser extent, the United States, and time after time, the Reds found themselves hanging by a thread, the thread held, the Reds proving skilled at shuttling forces around as needed by train. By November 1920, they had overcome the Whites.
Although Stalin would later play up his role in the Bolshevik Revolution, his contribution was minor at best, and as some historians have pointed out, his career as a revolutionary was mostly marked by being arrested. Furthermore, revolution had been his sole career; he had absolutely no other marketable skills. However, the civil war brought his star to the top. At the beginning of the conflict, he was sent south to Volgograd -- previously Tsaritsyn and later Stalingrad -- to coordinate the supply of food for the region, this being his first major operational assignment for the Bolshevik regime. With the approach of White forces, he took on a military role, appointing a long-time revolutionary colleague, Kliment Voroshilov, to command forces on the front.
In principle, the entire Red Army was under command of Lev Bronstein -- better known as Leon Trotsky, Trotsky having been the name of one of his jailers -- and Voroshilov was supposed to take orders from him. In practice Stalin would receive orders from Trotsky and scribble on them: TO BE IGNORED -- before passing them on to Voroshilov. Stalin was playing cagey and Trotsky blamed Voroshilov for failing to follow his orders, but when Trotsky sent an officer south to take charge, both Stalin and Voroshilov simply refused to obey. This insubordination led to a political feud, with Trotsky going so far as to consider sending Red Army forces south to impose his will.
Stalin was finally recalled to Moscow in October 1918. Despite Stalin's insubordination, Lenin had been impressed by his decisiveness, take-charge attitude, and ruthlessness in the south. That outweighed Stalin's disobedience, and even the fact that Stalin hadn't been notably competent: the Reds outnumbered the Whites on the front, and Lenin commented that Stalin had racked up tens of thousands of unnecessary casualties. Still, the Bolsheviks lacked people with any leadership ability, and during the rest of the civil war Stalin was sent to one front after another to deal with emergencies.
Stalin got things done, and if his methods were inclined to the brutal and crude, that was not a problem as far as Lenin was concerned; in fact, it even seemed admirable. If Stalin's solutions were not always tidy and brilliant, they were still solutions. Lenin did find Stalin exasperating -- in his reports to Moscow, Stalin portrayed himself as a military genius -- but Lenin remained confident in him. In contrast, the antagonism between Trotsky and Stalin continued to grow.
The civil war led to social breakdown and a massive famine in 1921, in which millions of people starved to death. Many more would have died had it not been for the American Relief Administration, managed with great effectiveness by Herbert Hoover, later a US president. Stalin was tasked with working on famine relief on the Soviet side, but much of his activity along that line focused on doing what he could to frustrate the relief effort. The Americans were counter-revolutionaries, after all, and could be up to no good. When the relief effort ended, Stalin arrested Soviet officials who had worked with the Americans and would have had them shot, but was forced to bend to loud objections from Hoover and others.
The famous Red reporter John Reed met Stalin not long before Reed's death in 1920. Reed's observations on Stalin were at least half astute: "He's not an intellectual like the other people you will meet. He's not even particularly well-informed, but he knows what he wants. He's got will-power, and he's going to be on the top of the pile one of these days." In April 1922, Lenin appointed Stalin as Chairman of the Central Committee.
* During the time of civil war, in 1918 Stalin married again, a teenager named Nadezhda Alliluyeva, his personal secretary. He had known her since she was little, since she was the daughter of a fellow revolutionary, Sergei Alliluyeva. A picture of her at 13 shows a very pretty little girl, with dark eyes, and dark hair tied with a ribbon. She was raised as a good revolutionary and, young and naive, was taken with Stalin, who was strong-willed, committed to the cause, and on the rise. She would not be the last person to be naive about Stalin.BACK_TO_TOP
* In May 1922, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin suffered the first in a series of strokes, a process that ended in his death on 21 January 1924. At his death, the USSR was a land of 200 million people that covered a sixth of the surface of the Earth. The Soviet people had endured a world war, revolution, and a civil war. With Lenin gone, they faced a transition to new leadership.
Joseph Stalin was delighted to hear of Lenin's death; Stalin's secretary said: "I never saw him in a happier mood." Relations between Lenin and Stalin had been going downhill for some time, and it is likely that if Lenin had lived longer and been in better health, Stalin would have found himself demoted or cast out of the government's inner circle. Luck had intervened, and now Stalin and Leon Trotsky were the front-runners to take charge of the Revolution.
Lenin had written a document stating recommendations for a successor, and discussed the merits and faults of both Stalin and Trotsky. In a postscript, however, he emphasized Stalin's faults, and suggested that Stalin be removed from the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR and be replaced by another who was "more loyal, more courteous, and more considerate of comrades, less capricious, etc." Although Lenin's widow Krupskaya tried to make the document public, infighting in the inner circles of the Communist Party leadership conspired to suppress it. It was only shown to a select few during the 13th Party Congress, and the readers were sworn to secrecy. Josef Stalin was now on track towards supreme authority over the USSR.
The political organization of the system Lenin left behind him consisted of three primary components:
The relative authority of these components remains confusing, particularly since it varied over time. Stalin had become the party secretary -- AKA first secretary or general secretary -- of the CPSU in 1922; with Lenin gone, he began a gradual effort to centralize power in the hands of the party secretary, and consolidate the authority of the CPSU over the executive branch of the government.
By 1928, Stalin had succeeded in getting ahead of potential competitors for power in the Party. Old comrades and rivals Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev had unwisely joined forces with him to send Trotsky into exile, only to be then sidelined. Nikolai Bukharin, one of the intellectual founders of the Revolution, was forced to make a public confession of his errors. Those who were useful to Stalin and did not seem inclined to challenge his authority, such as Vyacheslav Skryabin, an old Politburo colleague who had taken the name of "Molotov (Hammer)", and Anastas Mikoyan, would be content to ride on Stalin's coattails, though they would eventually learn it was a very hazardous means of transportation: Stalin would send members of both Molotov's and Mikoyan's families to prison.
There were other power centers, such as the military, that existed outside the Party. To gain control of them, Stalin needed to extend the reach of the Party over every aspect of Soviet life. Once under such central control, the entire nation would be geared to serve Stalin's ambitions, and then Soviet power could be extended beyond its borders. Of course, such ambitions could be ideologically painted with the belief that in the struggle between Communism and Capitalism, the historical dialectic dictated that Communism would prevail. However, underneath all the Communist doubletalk, Stalin simply wanted power, and would stop at nothing to get it.
Stalin was not the only leader with ambitions beyond the borders of his homeland. By this time, Mussolini had made Italy a Fascist state; the Japanese were looking towards expansion at the expense of their weak Chinese neighbor; and in Germany Adolf Hitler's National Socialist (Nazi) Party was becoming a political power to be reckoned with.
* At the end of the 1920s, 98% of the land of the USSR and the nation's food supply was in the hands of the peasantry. To begin his consolidation of power, Stalin had to bring the peasantry under control. Lenin had tried to do this and been forced to back off, since in response to the state seizure of their property, the peasants had simply killed their livestock and destroyed their grain stocks, helping bring on the famine of 1921.
Stalin intended to succeed, whatever the cost, where Lenin had failed. He initiated a program of forced collectivisation, essentially dispossessing the peasantry and reducing them to servitude. This was a far-reaching and brutal measure in a country that was mostly agrarian, the opening shot of Stalin's war on the Soviet Union's own citizens. Stalin knew that the action would cause great economic dislocation, but he was willing to pay that price to get the control he wanted. The suffering that it would cause was a matter of no concern to him; nor was the fact that the collectivisation effort would all but cripple Soviet agriculture.
Forced collectivisation would lead to the starvation of millions, to the imprisonment of millions more. Hundreds of thousands would be simply murdered in hidden courtyards, after confessions extracted by torture and contemptible sham trials. Stalin encouraged a bizarre class struggle, creating a group of "rich peasants" named "kulaks" and labeling them as oppressors, which simply set the very poorest peasants against those who, say, had an extra cow or the like. The big landowners had been driven off or otherwise dealt with and so the war against the kulaks was almost a complete fraud, a way of terrorizing all the peasants and shrewdly using petty envy as a weapon in the terror.
The Soviet propaganda machine managed to maintain the USSR's image in the West as a progressive country. Western intellectuals in particular would be taken in and proclaim the USSR the wave of the future. Conveniently, in 1928, the famed Russian writer Maxim Gorky returned to the USSR after living in Italy for a number of years. Gorky regarded the peasantry as subhuman, and he would prove useful to Stalin by writing propaganda to support the wave of brutality against the kulaks that was to sweep the country. Gorky would eventually outlive his usefulness. His abrupt death in 1936 is suspected to have been at Stalin's orders.
By the end of 1929, forced collectivisation was in full force in the Ukraine and the northern Caucasus. Arrests were made in a million households, with fathers sent off to new forced-labor camps and the families deported to Siberia. The first wave swept off the more prosperous level of the peasantry. In the winter of 1930, the sweep went lower, scything through the poorer peasantry. 120 million people in 600,000 communities were confronted with expropriation, eviction, and transportation. An internal passport system kept the movements of the peasantry under control. They would go where Stalin wanted them to go and nowhere else.
The terror was carried out by special food detachments, recruited from young men from the towns who had few attachments to the peasantry, and the increasingly powerful security apparatus, then known as the "OGPU", originally Lenin's "Cheka". There were many small uprisings, all of which were brutally crushed. A million peasants died of starvation in the north Caucasus. Five million died in the Ukraine when their grain disappeared into the Soviet apparatus. Villages became ghost towns. Three million men went into the network of prison camps that was at first known by the acronym "STON" (which translates literally into English as "Moan") and would later become known as the "Gulag". There they would work on everything from canals to power plants to the Moscow subway, building a new Soviet state on their blood and bones.
Most would be worked to death within a few months of their arrival, reduced to "camp dust", as the saying had it. Stalin needed prisoner labor to achieve his goals. There was no need to worry about their well-being. Calculations were performed to show that it was more economically cost-effective to work prisoners to death over a few months on a starvation diet than to keep them alive. Those that survived would usually be broken for the rest of their lives, their health ruined and their heads full of a disorderly jumble of realities and fantasies: when realities are more terrible than nightmares, it becomes impossible to tell the two apart. As for those who died in endless ranks, there were still many more where they came from, and if the ones that fell were also people who were suspected of not being completely obedient, so much the better.
* In March 1930, Stalin published an article on collectivisation, praising its success. In the meantime, he was looking for other means of extending his control over the Soviet state. In 1928, Stalin had instituted the first Soviet "Five-Year Plan", an aggressive program of industrialization and exploitation of the USSR's resources. Factories, dams, railroads, and mines were to be brought into being to fuel the growth of the Soviet state.
Such a major effort demanded strict control. The first sign of how that control would be achieved occurred when 55 miners were put on trial at Shakti, accused of conspiring with foreign powers to wreck the mines of the Donetz basin. 11 were sentenced to death and executed, the rest were sent off the prison camps from which few, if any, returned. Stalin proclaimed: "We have internal enemies, we have external enemies. This, comrades, must not be forgotten for a single moment."
If the Five Year Plans didn't meet their goals, someone would have to pay, and it would be "saboteurs" who conspired against the Soviet state. Ridiculous plots were fabricated and given substance with confessions squeezed out of helpless prisoners, who were then were shipped off to the prison camps and worked to death. Outsiders saw their dazzling and great contributions to Soviet might, and knew nothing of the suffering and despair that had built them.
* As Stalin's power and authority rose, his marriage deteriorated. Nadezhda bore him a second son, Vasily, in 1921, and a daughter, Svetlana, in 1926. Vasily would eventually go by his father's family name of Stalin, while Svetlana would go by her mother's family name of Alliluyeva. Stalin's first son, Yakov, came to live with them, but although Yakov got along well with Nadezhda, his father disliked him. Those who knew Yakov described him as gentle and serene; his father was neither. He belittled Yakov continuously, and when the young man attempted suicide, Stalin could only say: "Hah! He couldn't even shoot straight!" Yakov then left the household, moving to Leningrad to live with his stepmother's family.
Svetlana was her father's favorite, and he wrote her endearing letters. However, Stalin was what he was, crude and coarse and bullying, and whatever affection there was between him and Nadezhda gradually faded out. Nadezhda fell into depressions and apathy. She went to live with her parents for a time and sought help from a neurologist. A picture of Nadezhda from 1932 shows her bundled up against the cold and snow in cap and long winter coat, still pretty but seeming burdened.
She shot and killed herself on the night of 8 November 1932. One contributing factor appears to have been an incident in which she reported to Stalin horror stories she had heard of the sufferings of the peasantry under the state's famine policies. She had been enlightened about this matter by fellow students at a textiles class she was taking; Stalin's reaction was to order the arrest the students. There had also been a scene between Stalin and Nadezhda that evening in which he had become abusive, and there are clues that she had heard Stalin was in the company of another woman. There are suspicions that Stalin murdered her. Having no conscience to speak of he was certainly capable of it, but those around him reported later that he was deeply shaken and felt betrayed by her death.
Stalin had no great interest in his children afterward. He never married again, though some suspect that an attractive woman servant in his household served him at night as well as during the day. Such social contacts as he had degenerated into crude dinner and drinking sessions with his cronies, possibly best captured in spirit by the sordid drunken bashes of the revolutionary pigs in George Orwell's savage little satirical novel ANIMAL FARM. Stalin would toy with his guests at these functions; they went along with whatever he wanted them to do, and pretended to be cheerful about it. Stalin would drink, but he was rarely as drunk as he pretended to be. He preferred to pressure others to drink and then see what they said when the booze had loosened their tongues.BACK_TO_TOP
* As Stalin turned the screws on internal enemies, real and imaginary, much more tangible external enemies began to arise. The Japanese had defeated and humiliated Russia in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905; in 1932, the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Manchuria without authorization by the Japanese government, setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo. Japanese troops now stood along a long border with the Soviet Union. The USSR heavily reinforced the border region.
In January 1933, German elections swept the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler to victory. Hitler, and in his reflection the Nazi Party, was rabidly anti-Bolshevik, anti-Jew, and anti-Slav. Oddly, Hitler had no great ideological objection to Communism, and there were ex-Communists in the ranks of the Nazis who Hitler thought highly of because they possessed the inclination to violence and ruthlessness that he found so admirable. His problem with Communism was that he believed it was a Jewish conspiracy. By a further irony, the emerging Stalinist regime was antisemitic as well, though it was by no means as rabid about it as its German counterpart.
Furthermore, anyone who cared to read through the turgid prose of Hitler's autobiography, MEIN KAMPF, would see it flatly stated that Hitler believed that the German people should obtain "lebensraum (living space)" in the East, displacing the inferior Slavic peoples, who he called "a mass of born slaves", fit only to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water." Hitler made little secret of this ambition in his public speeches. The Soviets were perfectly aware of it, occasionally denouncing Hitler's expansionist goals in propaganda broadcasts.
A clash between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was inevitable. However, Stalin quickly granted recognition to the new Nazi government. Three months after Hitler's election, Stalin ratified the extension of the 1926 Berlin Treaty of Friendship and Neutrality. Incomprehensibly, the Soviets continued to provide military assistance and training to German military, which would soon rise as a deadly threat to the USSR.
* Although Stalin was at the helm of the Party, he was still not as sure as he wanted to be of his absolute control, although at the Party Congress of 1934 he was showered with praise, particularly from Party risers like the Georgian Gregoriy Ordzhonikidze and Stalin's old pal Voroshilov. The "Congress of Victors", as the event was called, was a forum for rising, future, and fading stars of the Party. Lavrenti Beria, who would become most useful, was filmed at Stalin's side, while the movie camera caught a young Nikita Khrushchev in the rows, who would denounce Stalin's cruelties a quarter of a century later.
The real focus of the camera was on current Party heroes; Stalin saw many of them as rivals and so a threat. The most prominent of these heroes was the charismatic Sergei Kirov, who though capable of being ruthless was bright, energetic, ambitious, and what a later generation would call "telegenic". He was consensus-oriented, not inclined to iron-fisted leadership like Stalin's, and that made him attractive as a potential General Secretary for the Party.
Although the applause for Stalin at the Party Congress was loud and continuous, there was a core group of regional Party secretaries who knew about his brutal policies in detail and did not like them. Many public votes were taken during the congress, but on the last day a secret vote was conducted to select members of the important Central Committee of the Communist Party and confirm Stalin as General Secretary of the Party. This was something of a formality, but it would have real effects. Only three votes were cast against Kirov for his position on the Central Committee, but 300 were cast against Stalin. The votes were immediately destroyed and false results were announced, electing Stalin nearly unanimously. Of 1,966 delegates, more than half would be executed sooner or later; historians have suggested that in hindsight the "Congress of Victims" might have been a more appropriate name than the "Congress of Victors". Of the 139-member Central Committee, 98 would be executed.
Kirov would get special treatment. Stalin took his cue from Adolf Hitler. Hitler had been helped to power by Ernst Roehm and his Brownshirt SA thugs, but once power had been achieved, Roehm's enemies gradually turned Hitler against him. Hitler moved against the SA in a swift stroke known as the "Night Of The Long Knives", and personally executed Roehm in a Munich cell. The neat operation was directed by Reinhard Heydrich, a rising star in Hitler's personal force, known as the "Schutzstaffel" or "SS", crystallizing around Heinrich Himmler.
Stalin found the Night of Long Knives inspirational, reputedly commenting: "Hitler, what a lad! Knows how to deal with political opponents!" However, Stalin's approach was a little more devious. Six months after the Night Of The Long Knives, on 1 December 1934, Kirov was assassinated by an OGPU agent named Leonid Nikolaev. Some sources suggest that Nikolaev had actually acted on his own and not on Stalin's orders, but if the murder was a spontaneous act, it was extremely convenient for Stalin. When Bukharin was called on the phone and told of Kirov's murder, he put down the phone and said: "Now Koba will shoot us all."
Kirov's death was played up as a tragedy in the state propaganda apparatus and Stalin shed crocodile tears at his funeral, kissing the corpse on its cheeks. Arrests and executions began. Kirov's bodyguard hardly lived a day longer than his boss, being bludgeoned to death with iron bars in the back of a paddy wagon. Nikolaev was shot before the end of December, along with his wife, ex-wife, sister-in-law, one brother, and a number of acquaintances, collectively described as the "Leningrad terrorist cell". Stalin was now showing his full true colors. The Party was to be cleansed of anyone that Stalin did not trust, and he was a very untrusting person.
Bukharin was perfectly correct as to his own fate. He himself was put through humiliating sham trials to be abused and browbeaten by the prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky, and executed in 1938.
The arrests, confessions under torture, trials, and executions had a strong impact on the public. Men who had been praised as Communist heroes were now revealed to be traitors, though the trials were an obvious farce to anyone who wasn't a complete drone. Jews were even accused of being Nazi agents. In all, before the purges were done, 1 in 20 Soviet subjects would be arrested. The result was predictably widespread confusion and fear. People began to spy on their neighbors and denounce them to the authorities, who gave little thought to the truth of such accusations. Anyone who had a petty grudge against a neighbor or co-worker now had an opportunity for the ultimate revenge, and many became enthusiastic in performing such denunciations. What little person would not have been thrilled to have the power of life and death over enemies? There were some people who denounced hundreds of others, persisting in their denunciations so fanatically that even the authorities stopped listening to them.
Nobody dared speak freely. Sometimes things were so absurd that people could hardly keep from laughing, even though laughing was dangerous. In 1937, Stalin had proposed a new Soviet constitution, and put it before the people for a referendum. One Soviet citizen did his duty and went to vote, as he had to if he valued his head, and went into the voting booth to find the vote card had a single entry. It was already marked. He found it almost literally hysterical. A joke went around: "Barber, why must you talk politics?" "Because your hair is easier to cut when it stands on end."
Surprisingly, many Soviet citizens did not realize who was responsible for the madness, thinking it was due to some breakdown in the system or officials who had gone off the deep end. People would say: "If only Stalin knew!" Sometimes concerned citizens would even try to write Stalin with complaints, an action that was likely to prove a grave mistake. Stalin often scribbled comments on documents and letters that went across his desk; when he received pleas from citizens in desperate distress, he would scrawl mocking or contemptuous remarks on them -- and often order the arrest of the authors.
Leftist visitors from the West still believed that the Soviet Union represented progressive revolutionary ideals and the way of the future, and Stalin proved shrewd at manipulating them so that they went home completely ignorant of the true nature of Stalin's regime. Communist movements in other countries remained dupes. When a decree was passed that extended the death penalty down to 12-year-olds, French Communists argued that under Communism people matured so much faster that a 12-year-old was effectively an adult.
The privileged elite in the showpiece state apartments on the Moscow river were witnesses to the terror, as well as other acts of tyranny. The apartments faced the grand Church of Christ the Savior, one of Moscow's great landmarks, but in 1935 workmen began to put up fences and remove the church's artworks. Shocked rumors ran around that the church was to be demolished. The Chairman of the Economic Council, Valerian Kubishev, wrote a letter to Stalin pleading that the church be spared. Kubishev received the letter back, with Stalin's words scribbled across it: "Comrade Kubishev: You do not understand the full scale of the political meaning of this action. I insist on the demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. J. Stalin."
And so the domes of the cathedral fell. It would be rebuilt decades later, but its destruction remained a crime. Kubishev was a brave man. He died not long afterward, apparently of natural causes, but there remains room for doubt.
* Stalin's brutality undermined the unity and morale of the Soviet people. In Germany, Hitler was proving similarly brutal, but somewhat shrewder. Hitler made the Jews a scapegoat for the country's problems, a measure that was both convenient and sincere, since his hatred of the Jews was pathological. Persecution of the Jews began to increase dramatically. At the same time, Hitler inflamed German patriotism and resentment against the defeat in World War I to rearm his country and steel the Germans for war. Germany would be turned into a powerful machine that would reach out and take the lebensraum in the East that was one of Hitler's most prized goals.
The German military, the Wehrmacht, had never paid any more concern to the limitations in the Treaty of Versailles than they had to, but now Hitler openly defied the treaty, beginning mass production of tanks for his army, the Heer; modernizing and building up his air force, the Luftwaffe; and implementing plans to build submarines and surface warships for his navy, the Kriegsmarine. In 1935, conscription began to build an army of 36 divisions, and the country was put on a war footing.
While the Nazi threat grew, Stalin worried about internal enemies. He was suspicious of the military and wanted it in his grasp. One of the most prominent of the military elite was Mikhail Tukachevsky, a handsome ex-Czarist officer of noble blood and excellent military credentials, who was Marshal of the Red Army. To Stalin, he stood too much for the loathesome old society. Tukachevsky, a big and strong man, had also apparently once grabbed the short-statured Stalin by the shoulders and lifted him up to face height. Stalin had a very long memory for personal grudges.
Tukachevsky had been an obedient tool of the Soviet state, and had suppressed uprisings and enforced Stalin's will. He also had proven an excellent and forward-looking officer, who introduced parachute assaults and conducted military experiments in armored warfare, adopting a strategic doctrine of mobility with large armored formations, deep penetration, and successive battles as a means of winning wars. Under Tukachevsky's guidance, the Red Army was at the leading edge of military thinking in the era before the war.
That meant very little to Stalin; indeed, by demonstrating military competence superior to that of Stalin, Tukachevsky was automatically an enemy who needed to be dealt with. Tukachevsky and a number of senior Army officers were arrested on 27 May 1937 and put through trials that were a sham even by Stalinist standards. The generals were executed on the evening of 12 June 1937; Tukachevsky's military writings were suppressed. The loss of Tukachevsky was a particular blow to the Red Army, the service's strategic thinking then falling into disarray, with Tukachevsky's writings suppressed.
That was only the beginning. The purge cut through the military senior command hierarchy like a scythe, and it didn't stop there, working its way down the ranks to clean out thousands, tens of thousands, of junior officers as well. Stalin's old crony Voroshilov boasted to the Great Leader: "The Red Army has been cleansed of more than 40,000 officers!"
The majority of the purged officers were simply dismissed, but enough were arrested and shot to ensure that none of the survivors dared to do anything unless Stalin wanted it done. Any spark of initiative had been completely stamped out in the name of establishing direct control from the top. All responsibility was thrown onto the shoulders of junior officers; trapped in the contradictions between the ideals of their indoctrination and ugly realities, overburdened by duties beyond their capacity to meet, the number of suicides among their ranks would climb to shocking levels.
By this time, the German military had been honed to become a sharp and powerful offensive weapon. To Adolf Hitler, the Soviet giant to the East seemed to be in convulsions that reduced it to a state of feebleness and vulnerability. Nazi officials and German officers marveled at the self-destructive lunacy of the purges. The mindless savagery had gone beyond the point where it was possible to convincingly assign even the most cynical and brutal rationales to it. The Red Army had been almost decapitated by its own leader, reducing a powerful force that had been at the leading edge of new concepts and tactics to almost complete paralysis.
Soviet society had been thoroughly destabilized, with so many people arrested that it was hard to keep the trains running. Soviet agriculture had been all but wrecked. A census had been conducted in 1937 that showed that the Soviet population had declined considerably since the previous census. All on the census board were arrested, to disappear from the face of the Earth. The next census board would be more careful in its findings.
Stalin would succeed in building a mighty industrial machine, but almost unarguably much more in spite of the brutality than because of it. In addition, many of the grand show projects of the Soviet State were frauds, a misallocation of resources at the very best, at worst imposing but worthless. Tens of thousands died to dig the White Sea-Baltic canal, which proved too shallow to be useful.
When people were arrested in the middle of the night, they almost always asked: "Zachto?!" -- Why?! What for?! Hardened criminals who were arrested became something of an "upper class" in the Gulag, serving as guards who could be trusted to be brutal to the other prisoners, the innocents who had simply been swept up in the purges. The Soviet state proved most effective at punishing those who had done nothing wrong. Stalin was creating his own idea of a New Soviet Man, a cowed creature who seemed hardly likely to stand up to the tough legions of Germany's Nazi Führer.
* Hitler had been testing the waters for war for several years. In 1936, he sent his still-weak army into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarized by the Versailles Treaty. The French and the British did nothing of consequence, and Hitler was emboldened for further moves. Stalin did not fail to notice the feeble response to the aggression. He also did not fail to notice the creation of a pact between Germany, a clear future enemy, and Japan, a past enemy that had humiliated Tsarist Russia. The pact, which would later include Italy, was clearly aimed at the USSR.
At home, Stalin's power was absolute, but that did not mean he felt confident. Stalin's distrust was pathological and the people had to be kept under the whip. In particular, they would not be allowed to be infected with ideas from the outside world. When US Navy battle cruiser AUGUSTA and four destroyers paid a courtesy call for four days to the Siberian port of Vladivostok, the American sailors had the run of the streets of the city and chatted with Soviet citizens, often trading souvenirs. The American warships were similarly open to the Soviet public, and many paid a cordial visit to their decks. There was nothing unusual about such a courtesy call, it was a naval tradition. Russian sailors had paid a similar courtesy call to the US during the American Civil War and had been treated like visiting royalty. The visit of the AUGUSTA had been approved by the Soviet leadership.
When the warships left, mass arrests began. Sailors were accused of having been recruited as spies for the Americans, and were intimidated or tortured into signing bogus confessions. There was the same dismal round of executions and transportations to the Gulag. The approval for the visit may have been a bureaucratic mixup, but it is frighteningly possible that Stalin himself gave the go-ahead for it. The Americans would leave with the impression of a friendly, open society, and the mess they left behind could be cleaned up out of their sight.
Stalin cast his net wider for other groups to intimidate. He learned of the teachings of the quack geneticist Lysenko, who repudiated mainstream evolutionary ideas for a half-baked form of "directed evolution" that appealed to Stalin's Marxist ideology. Lysenko had a knack for appearing a homespun genius while pouring out a line of preposterous pseudoscientific doubletalk designed to trim to the political winds, and Stalin bought into him completely.
Why not? Despite the claim of Communism to be scientific, Stalin did not understand the sciences and did not want to understand them. To him, there were no scientific truths, based on concrete and supportable evidence, which remained the same no matter what anyone thought of them. To Stalin, the truth was whatever he wanted it to be. He was all-wise; all-knowing; nobody could contradict him; and the thought that he could be wrong apparently never crossed his mind.
Furthermore, Lysenko had the classic mentality of a crank, believing that his brilliant ideas were being suppressed by a scientific establishment committed to the fraudulent conventional wisdom. Having been granted Stalin's ear Lysenko, unlike most cranks, could actually do something about the "conspiracy" against him. Geneticists who had criticized Lysenko were thrown into the security machine. Many did not return. Lysenko's influence would linger for a quarter of a century, doing much to grossly set back Soviet genetics.
That machine ground on relentlessly. In 1938, Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's old crony and currently the state's premier, had suggested a list of new ministers of the Supreme Soviet. Within two years, they had all been murdered or imprisoned. The pressure on the peasants did not let up even as the upper levels of Soviet society were cleansed. Propaganda films showed smiling peasants dancing at harvest celebrations and praising the regime. The films did little to inspire the peasants, because they were all under iron control, subject to widespread terror, and knew from painful experience the films were lies. Nikita Khrushchev did the will of Stalin in the Ukraine, writing to the Great Leader in a cable: I HAVE SENT YOU 18,000 ENEMIES OF THE STATE. Anyone even suspected of disloyalty was swept up, and practical resistance was almost out of the question.BACK_TO_TOP