Stalin Era (historical article)
The lingering sickness and death of Lenin occasioned a bitter struggle for power. The principal antagonists, Trotsky and Stalin, both claimed to be the rightful executors of Lenin’s policies. In contrast to Trotsky, who was primarily a theorist and a military leader, Stalin, the party’s general secretary since 1922, was a clever and determined organizer. Through his mastery of the Communist Party apparatus, he succeeded in winning the support of a majority of delegates to party conferences and in consolidating his rule. Trotsky was expelled from the party in November 1927. He was exiled to Kazakhstan in 1928, and then banished from the Soviet Union the following year. In 1940 he was assassinated in Mexico by an agent of Stalin.
Having disposed of Trotsky, Stalin turned against his former allies in the struggle. These leaders, notably Nikolay Bukharin and Aleksey Rykov, were driven from the higher councils of the party. In 1929, as he celebrated his 50th birthday, Stalin was hailed as the supreme leader of the party and the country. Thereafter, the dictator relied solely on his control of the party and the police and on cronies he had elevated to power. Important among these were Vyacheslav Molotov, Grigory Ordzhonikidze, Lazar Kaganovich, and Valerian Kuybyshev.
Economic Transformation and Trauma Stalin and the Soviet leadership renounced the NEP, and the measure of capitalism it permitted, in 1928. The inauguration of the first of the USSR’s Five-Year Plans that year began the era of the planned economy. Its basic aim was to harness all economic activity to the systematic development of heavy industry, thereby transforming the Soviet Union from an agrarian country into a leading industrial and military power and altering the very nature of society. Carrying the plan out, the Stalin government poured resources into the production of coal, iron, steel, railway equipment, and machine tools. Whole new cities, such as Magnitogorsk in the Urals, were built with the at times enthusiastic participation of young workers and intellectuals.
Economic transformation was accomplished at staggering human cost. Anyone who expressed reservations risked reprisals from the police. Ordinary newcomers to the cities often lived in wretched and unsanitary conditions. The collectivization of agriculture, a centerpiece of Stalin’s economic program, relied on brute force far more than on enthusiasm. In extensive sections of the Soviet Union—Ukraine, the Volga valley of the RSFSR, and Kazakhstan, in particular—starvation and epidemic disease were rampant from 1932 to 1935. By some estimates, between 5 million and 7 million peasants died in this state-made famine.
The Great Purge The mid- to late 1930s were marked by Stalin’s campaign to eliminate all elements alleged to have reservations about his policies. The process was touched off in December 1934 when a disgruntled party member assassinated Sergey Kirov, a popular and high-ranking party official. Although it remains unknown whether Kirov himself harbored doubts about Stalin’s line, the event served as Stalin’s justification to initiate a vicious purge of the party and of all Soviet institutions.
Stalin had any person he or his assistants distrusted removed from posts of authority; many were jailed, sent to the forced-labor camps of Gulag (Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps), or executed. In a series of three show trials in Moscow between 1936 and 1938, a number of once prominent Soviet leaders, including Grigory Zinovyev, Bukharin, and Rykov, were convicted and executed on concocted charges of conspiring with Germany and Japan to overthrow Stalin’s government. In a closed-door trial in June 1937, the topmost commanders of the army, including Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, were found guilty of similar charges and shot. Two-thirds of the 1934 Central Committee of the party was executed, as were more than half of the senior officers of the army. Furthermore, the political police, or NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs), had license to extend the purges to lower-level officials and rank-and-file citizens. In the darkest years of the terror, from 1937 to 1938, the NKVD under Nikolay Yezhov rounded up several million people; as many as 1 million people were shot, while another 2 million are estimated to have died in the camps. In December 1938 Stalin’s appointment of a new NKVD chief, Lavrenty Beria, signaled the end of the mass terror, although some arrests and executions continued into 1939.Foreign Affairs As Moscow saw it, international events in the 1930s increasingly endangered Soviet security. In East Asia, Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931, and friction gradually mounted with Soviet forces stationed in Russia and Mongolia; sporadic clashes developed into serious border warfare in 1938. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 resulted in an even more menacing threat. Stalin initially instructed Comintern and the German Communist Party to cooperate with Hitler, seeing him as a harmless ally against liberal and democratic socialist parties. Stalin reconsidered as it became clear that the Nazis’ plans for expansion through military force were in earnest. The Soviet Union began to seek alliances with other European powers, especially France and Britain, to counter the threat and in 1934 joined the League of Nations. The Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, Maksim Litvinov, repeatedly urged the members of the league to take concerted action for collective security against the successive aggressions of the several Fascist powers. The USSR also encouraged the formation within individual countries of so-called united-front, or popular-front, governments, in which Communist, socialist, and centrist political groups would collaborate against Fascist movements.
In the summer of 1938 a grave crisis arose when Germany demanded the cession by Czechoslovakia of Sudetenland, a border area with a large German minority. The Soviet Union offered to support the Czechoslovaks and called upon France and the United Kingdom to do the same. The French and British governments instead accepted Hitler’s assurance that Sudetenland was the final territorial acquisition he sought. The result was the Munich Pact of September 1938, providing for the transfer of the disputed land by Germany. In March 1939 the Germans dismembered the rest of Czechoslovakia, occupying its capital, Prague, and creating a satellite state in Slovakia (the eastern part of the country).
World War II Engaged in a border war with Japan in the east and fearing Germany would turn on it in the west, the Soviet government began secret negotiations for an arrangement with Germany, meanwhile continuing talks, begun in April 1939, with France and the United Kingdom for an anti-German entente (understanding). On August 23, 1939, the Soviet government shocked the Western democracies as well as many Communists around the world by signing a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. Beyond improving the Soviet Union’s defensive posture, the agreement gave it an opportunity to carry out territorial expansion, something it had not had the strength to do since 1917. Confidential protocols provided for German and Soviet spheres of influence in Poland and for a free Soviet hand in Estonia and Latvia in the event of military conflict in the area.
That conflict was not long in coming. On September 1 Germany, emboldened by the pact with Moscow, invaded Poland, thereby provoking declarations of war by the United Kingdom and France and launching World War II. Sixteen days later the Red Army crossed the Polish frontier, took possession of eastern Poland, and began the Sovietization of the occupied areas. This would involve their incorporation into Ukraine and Belorussia and the deportation of thousands of Poles to Siberia. On September 29 Germany and the USSR signed another treaty modifying territorial arrangements in Poland and consigning Lithuania to the Soviet sphere. The Soviet Union then imposed agreements on the Baltic States giving it the right to base troops on their soil.
The Winter War with Finland Also during the fall of 1939, Stalin demanded of Finland that it hand over the southeastern section of the Karelian Isthmus as a buffer zone for Leningrad and that it permit the USSR to lease naval bases on the Finnish shore of the Gulf of Finland. Rejection of these proposals led to the undeclared Russo-Finnish War (also known as the Winter War), touched off by the Soviet invasion of Finland on November 30, 1939. The League of Nations expelled the Soviet Union for its aggression. After a valiant but futile resistance, the Finns were overcome by the numerically superior Soviet forces. A treaty signed March 12, 1940, gave the USSR the land it sought and other strategic and economic advantages. The Karelo-Finnish region was promptly added to the galaxy of Soviet republics.
Expansion in the Baltic and the Balkans Soviet expansion continued during 1940. On June 15 and 16 the Soviet Union demanded free passage of troops and the formation of pro-Soviet governments in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Without waiting for acceptance of these demands, the Red Army moved in. Puppet governments were established and all resistance was extinguished. The USSR Supreme Soviet in early August annexed the three Baltic States as union republics.The Soviet Union simultaneously extended its reach to the Balkans. It demanded that Romania surrender its regions of Bessarabia, which had merged with Romania in December 1918, and northern Bukovina. Romania complied and Soviet troops entered the regions on June 28. The central portion of Bessarabia was joined with a section of southeastern Ukraine to form the union republic of Moldavia, while the other territory acquisitions were merged into Ukraine. Germany concurred, but considered the whole affair an irritant and installed a client government in Bucharest. The Soviet Union, growing more wary of German intentions, renewed diplomatic contacts with Japan. On April 13, 1941, the two countries signed a five-year neutrality pact.
German Invasion Hitler began planning an attack on the Soviet Union in mid-1940 and signed the directive for Operation Barbarossa in December. Stalin, refusing to believe the worst, disregarded copious messages from his intelligence services about an impending aggression. When Germany finally invaded, on June 22, 1941, it came as a tactical surprise and caught the Red Army, already weakened by Stalin’s purges, at a terrible disadvantage.
The German assault changed the military and political alignment of the entire war, which now assumed global proportions. Italy, Romania, Hungary, Finland, and other Axis countries declared war on the USSR. The United States extended lend-lease aid to the Soviet Union; it ultimately provided some $12 billion worth of equipment and food. After the United States entered World War II in December 1941, it, Britain, and the Soviet Union became military allies. In January 1942, four months after it accepted the principles of the Atlantic Charter, the USSR and 25 other Allied countries signed the Declaration by United Nations, formally subscribing to the program and purposes of the Atlantic Charter and pledging their cooperation in the defeat of the Axis powers. In May 1943 the USSR dissolved Comintern.
The USSR’s war with Germany and its allies—the Great Patriotic War, as Stalin’s government called it—was a savage fight to the finish. The Axis assault was launched from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea, striking for Leningrad, Moscow, and Ukraine. As the Red Army reeled back in disarray, Stalin began frantic efforts to remove industrial plants and workers from the path of the invaders and relocated them in and behind the Ural Mountains. Much of what could not be removed was intentionally laid waste.
For a time the German blitzkrieg (offensive) appeared successful, as millions of Soviet soldiers were encircled and annihilated or captured. In the Baltic States, Belorussia, and Ukraine, the invaders met a friendly reception from those who had suffered most under the Stalinist yoke. German atrocities, however, stiffened Soviet resistance. The advance on Leningrad was checked in September 1941, although the city was besieged until January 1944; casualties there exceeded 1.25 million. The drive on Moscow was stopped in December 1941 with German tanks about 30 km (20 mi) from the city center.
From Stalingrad to Berlin
In the south the Germans were more successful; they took all of Ukraine and pressed on toward the Volga to sever Moscow and Leningrad from the Caucasus, where the USSR’s most productive oil fields were then located. In January 1943 German forces were finally halted and defeated in the epic Battle of Stalingrad (seeVolgograd). It was the turning point of the Soviet-German war and one of the decisive engagements of world history. Thereafter the Germans were pressed steadily westward. In the spring and summer of 1944 the Baltic States and Ukraine were practically cleared of enemy forces; by the end of August, Soviet armies were fighting in Poland and Romania. Other victories followed. On April 24, 1945, Soviet forces encircled Berlin; the following day Soviet and U.S. troops met at the Elbe River, marking the complete Allied occupation of Germany. The Allied Powers then divided responsibility for administering Germany and the city of Berlin, putting the eastern sectors under Soviet control and the western sectors under the control of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The war in Europe ended on May 8.Despite the 1941 neutrality treaty with Japan, Stalin had every intention of joining the war in the Pacific in time to benefit from it. His wartime allies were in favor, hoping that the entry of Soviet troops would hasten Japan’s capitulation. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 9, 1945, the day after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In a series of swift moves against crumbling resistance, Soviet armies occupied most of Manchuria (now known as Northeast China), northern Korea, the Kuril Islands (then part of Japan), and the southern part of Sakhalin Island, which was also a Japanese possession at the time, although the USSR controlled the north. On the basis of these actions the Soviet Union claimed a share in the victory over Japan.
The Soviet Union suffered grievous losses during World War II. Much of its European territory was devastated by mechanized warfare and the horrors of occupation. Official Soviet reports at the time stated that 20 million soldiers and civilians perished in the war, but it was later revealed, during Gorbachev’s time in office in the 1980s, that a more realistic figure for Soviet losses was between 27 million and 28 million. At this astronomic price, the Soviet Union subdued its bellicose neighbors, expanded its frontiers, and moved its troops into Germany, Eastern Europe, and formerly Japanese-held parts of East Asia. Bargaining over postwar arrangements afforded it recognition as one of the great powers of the world. Stalin participated with the American and British leaders at the Tehrвn Conference in 1943, the Yalta Conference in February 1945, and the Potsdam Conference later in 1945 to decide the overall military and political strategy of the war and a common postwar European policy. The Soviets also played a leading role in the conferences leading to the establishment of the United Nations (UN) in 1945.
Instead of making a treaty immediately with defeated and disorganized Germany, the victor nations temporarily designated four occupation zones. The eastern zone was assigned to the USSR. Berlin, surrounded by the Soviet zone, was divided into four sectors; its eastern zone was also assigned to the USSR. All were to be administered as parts of one country, with free trade among them. German territory east of a line formed by the Odra (Oder) and Neisse rivers was consigned to Polish occupancy pending a final peace settlement. The northern part of East Prussia was awarded to the USSR. The Soviets exacted huge reparations in the form of machinery and raw materials from the Soviet-occupied areas of Eastern Europe. During the postwar reconstruction of the Soviet economy, which had been devastated in the war, Germany and former Nazi satellites such as Finland also made reparations to the Soviet Union.