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Joseph Stalin, real name Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, was the second leader of the Soviet Union and was nicknamed Koba by his inner circle meaning a Georgian folk hero. Joseph Stalin is feared to be one of the most murderous people to have ever lived. His rule of the former USSR was tyrannical and millions of people lost their lives as a result of his inhumane actions. He renamed himself ‘The Man of Steel’. He adopted the name “Stalin” which means “steel” and the name stuck to him during the Russian revolution.  It is believed that he oversaw the deaths of about 20 million people many of them starved to death. This paper will first take a close look at his early life, his rise to power and actions to consolidate his authoritarian rule. This paper will also discuss the Great Purge in the Soviet Union where local officials put into trial abuses against the peasantry while investigating the role of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his origins in the Great purge.

Joseph Stalin Early Life

            Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in Gori, Georgia on 21st December 1879. He was the fourth child of his parents. However, his older siblings died due to poor living conditions. Therefore, as a child he was closely protected by his parents. His mother worked as a seamstress while his father was a cobbler and also an alcoholic. On the contrary, his mother was deeply religious. His family led a squalid life during his younger years. Stalin suffered from small pox when he was seven years old. Although he overcame it, the scars on his face as a result of the disease remained.

            Stalin was taken to a local church school where he excelled. This excellence earned him a scholarship to Tiflis Theological Seminary. Although his parents had the best of intentions while taking him to a theological school, it is here where he joined a radical organization that was clamoring for Georgian independence. Named ‘Messame Dassy’, the organization was composed of social revolutionaries that subscribed to the ideologies of Karl Marx Stalin’s foray into the world of resistance had just began, a resistance that would prove bloody. As it turned out, he was more than prepared for it: and one that probably ended his life.

            The seeds of discord were sown when he joined Messame Dassy. Soon after this act, he was expelled from Tiflis after it was revealed that he became rude to the school authority and going against the school policies by reading banned books. On his account, he claimed that he had tried to convince his counterparts to join the organization and he was expelled as a result. The early promise of excellence in his studies had gone in a flash much to the dismay of his parents, and Stalin’s. He was unemployed for some months.

            Not a man to be put down easily, he was back on his feet by tutoring children for some time before working as a clerk. Soon, he was writing socialistic articles for a Georgian newspaper. He was later to join a social party and he played a vital role in organizing a resistance to Tsarism in the industrial areas. That was way back in 1901. The year that followed, he organized another strike at Rothschild factory, Batum. This time round, he was arrested and sent to prison for 18 months. He was deported to Siberia after finishing his sentence. Stalin’s collision with the law had just begun.  He was repeatedly arrested, imprisoned and sent to exile but he seemed to have a way of escaping. Stalin’s dalliance with the Caucasian Workers' Newssheet' and organizer of Bolshevik Party led him into meeting Lenin, the party leader at the time. It is at this point that probably signaled his ascent to power.

The Slow Path to Power

            Lenin appointed Stalin to the Committee of Bolshevik Party and an underground operator of the party. He was also appointed as one of the editors of the party’s official newspaper. In 1913, the then Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili renamed himself Stalin; ‘The Man of Steel’: a name that would forever be associated with his personality. However, he was arrested that same year and exiled for four years after benefitting from a general amnesty.

            Stalin resumed his role as editor of the newspaper after his return. He was later elected into the party’s committee and was an organizer of an armed uprising by the party. The Bolsheviks were successful in taking over the whole country. For his effort, Stalin was rewarded with a ministerial position in the new Lenin’s Communist administration. He was later to be given more responsibilities within the party which essentially enhanced his position and his influence, and his rise to power. When he was appointed the party’s general secretary position he was essentially the party’s leader as he dictated almost all its activities. This role consolidated his influence over the party’s members. Thus, when Lenin suffered a stroke in 1922, his inevitable ascent into power was in sight. Lenin was later to die in 1924 leaving a trio of Kamenev-Zinoviev-Stalin jostling for the overall leadership of party.

Ascent to Power

            After Lenin’s death, there were the four of potential successors; Kamenev, Zinoviev, Stalin and Trotsky. However, there was no clear person to seize the opportunity. The power struggle among the four began. When Lenin died, Trotsky, who was Lenin’s right hand man and most favored to take the leadership of The Soviet Union, was away in the Caucasus. Stalin’s probably first act of paranoia was informing his rival Trotsky that Lenin would be buried immediately. This would ensure that Trotsky would not attend the burial. His dirty tricks had just begun as Trotsky was convinced not to attend the funeral.

            Stalin was in the forefront during the funeral activities. While members of the Bolshevik party were in genuine mourning, Stalin used this occasion to position himself to be the party’s, and The Soviet Union, next overall leader. This motive was enhanced when during the funeral a note from the deceased was read warning the party’s members to be wary of him: suggesting that he should be removed from power. However, his allies Kamenev and Zinoviev defended him vehemently. On his part, Trotsky sat on the fence. He had passed his first real test although the matter of Trotsky troubled him. He remained as the party’s secretary general. To assume leadership, Stalin had to fight Trotsky first and then his allies.

Stalin vs. Trotsky

            Trotsky was a great orator and full of energy and the people loved it. On his part, Stalin only strategy was defaming his opponents. This did little to help his course. Another obstacle for him was that he was not a theorist. Therefore, he teamed up with Kamenev and Zinoviev in discrediting Trotsky who was the best theorist of them. The latter two took a prominent role in fighting Trotsky with Stalin taking a back seat. However, this scenario would soon change.

            Stalin proposed a plan dubbed ‘Socialism in one Country’ which proved to be a turning point in his struggle as discussed later. In 1925, Trotsky was removed from the party’s influential War Commissariat. His wings had been clipped and he retreated to the background. Stalin celebrated his first victory in his quest. His dirty tricks of betrayal had proved successful.

Stalin pitted against Kamenev, Zinoviev

            With Trotsky out of the way, Kamenev and Zinoviev sensed some victory but Stalin had other plans. Soon after vanquishing Trotsky, Stalin left erstwhile allies to join other influential right wing members of the party; Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky. While Kamenev and Zinoviev had dismissed Stalin as a non factor, this was to change when his ‘Socialism in one Country’ theory was adopted by the party’s members. He had just scored another victory. His erstwhile allies felt betrayed. Hence, they cut ties with Stalin.

Consolidating power

            Stalin’s new allies Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky were all given influential party positions as Kamenev, Zinoviev and Trotsky were banished into the minority. He was now the one calling the shots. Stalin ensured that they were replaced slowly by slowly until he was left with no opposition. Soon, Stalin was to expel the trio from the party completely after they resisted his leadership. Trotsky was exiled into Asia after showing the greatest resistance.     Stalin was not yet done with betraying his close friends. Fearing that Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky would rival his authority, he co-ordinated their removal from the party’s top posts. He employed the same tactics on other perceived threats. With all his rivals out of the way, the coast was clear for Joseph Stalin to establish a bloody authoritarian rule in Russia.

Stalin’s Fear of Rivals

            Right after Lenin’s death, Stalin was always wary of people he perceived as rivals who would keep him from taking over the power. His first act of misleading Trotsky into not attending the burial was perhaps the clearest indicator. Trotsky’s failure to attend the burial put him at cross roads with the party’s members. His cunning personality was at its fore when he managed to pit Kamenev and Zinoviev against Trotsky. These three later realized this scheme but it was too late for them to reverse his ascent.

            Stalin tricked Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky to take full control of the Bolshevik party. Using this influence, he managed to expel his three great rivals to his leadership; Kamenev, Zinoviev and Trotsky claiming that their public squabbles were dividing the party. The former two were only allowed into the after they accepted not to question the party’s, and therefore Stalin’s, policies. The latter never accepted and was subsequently exiled.

            Fearing that Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky would rival him, he engineered their removal from Bolshek’s top positions. They were replaced by people he perceived as no threats to his authority.

  Joseph Stalin the Dictator

            In the late 1920’s, Joseph Stalin had seized power, an authoritarian rule that would lead to fatalities of millions of people. He was the policy maker of almost all aspects of the Russian economy. Most of his policies never produced desired results. Throughout his reign, Stalin always worried about threats to his rule. As a result, he put up mechanisms to quash any rebellion from the people; friends and foe alike.

            Stalin promoted communism at all costs. However, this was not entirely an economic tactic. His promotion of the urban culture was to remotely mirror the culture in the villages where there was close association of citizens. Under this system, everyone will know almost everything about everyone. Under the pretence of communism, Stalin encouraged all citizens to spy on one another. Any suspicious person or anyone who seemed anti-Soviet was to be denounced. The family set up was also put under stress as children were encouraged to inform on their parents to the authorities.

Stalin’s Spies and the Secret Police

Stalin was a paranoid man; always believing that he had enemies everywhere. He always feared that there were endless conspiracies to harm him. Therefore, he adopted such punitive tendencies to not only punish a perceived enemy but also the enemy’s entire family.

      Stalin’s brutality was aided in great part by the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs NKVD. The NKVD was an intelligence body that dictated the activities of the police, fire brigades, the army, prison guards and all criminal investigations. NKVD had been formed in 1918 but it grew in prominence after Stalin took over power. Its first leader was Yagoda. By 1934, NKVD had the full control of all security matters of The USSR. Its composition at the time was; GUGB (Chief Directorate of State Security), GUPVO (Chief Directorate of Frontier Guards and Interior Troops), GULAG (Chief Directorate of Camps), GUM (Chief Directorate of the Militia) and fire brigade units, aero-security units and others. The NKVD was at the forefront of the purges that occurred in 1936 as it reigned terror on the citizens. The organization was transformed many times during Stalin’s rein. It gained even more power as time went by and Stalin became more paranoid.

            Stalin also had a military intelligence unit called The GRU. Its main task was to gather international intelligence. This unit was tasked with recruiting and training spies. Its best student was Richard Sorge who forewarned Stalin about Operation Barbossa and the German invasion. Other renowned spies were ‘The Red Three’ and Klaus Fuchs. These spies played a crucial role in Stalin’s international wars as he was prepared in advance. Through these spies, Stalin knew about The US atomic bombs, secrets of Western foes and Hitler’s battle strategies. This information proved crucial as he managed to defeat Hitler.

 The Great Purge

Joseph Stalin orchestrated a series of campaigns of political repression and persecutions in famously called the Great Purge from 1936 to 1938 that came to shape his leadership. The Great Purge involved, repression of peasant farmers, large-scale purge of Stalin’s communist party and government officials, persecution of unaffiliated persons, the eldership of the Red Army with widespread police brutality, imprisonment and executions. In Russia, this period (193-1938) is known as Yezhovshchina after head of the then secret police Chief Nikolai Yezhov.  According to Conquest (p.3, 2007) the Great Purge did not just begin out of the blue but had its roots in the past. The purge was a means of enforcing violent changes upon the Soviet society and the party. Therefore, it is paramount that we consider the Soviet past and the consolidation of dictatorship, the rise of individuals and the emergence of extreme economic policies.

The Stage is Set

After Lenin had a stroke in 1922 he was cut off, though not completely, from political life and contemplated that unexpected defects arisen in revolution had been made. He had earlier made a remark in 1921 that they have failed to convince broad masses and felt obliged to excuse the low quality of many of party members.  After he recovered he stated that they were living in a sea of illegality which lacked general culture inventing boasts and lies of communists. His criticism grew and became his main preoccupation. Lenin found out that Stalin whom he had entrusted the party machinery was hounding the party in Georgia and even Georgian communist leader Kabanidze had been struck. He took issue with Stalin especially considering that he favored a conciliation policy. Some days later Stalin made threats to Lenin’s wife concerning Lenin’s intervention of Georgia. Lenin heavily criticized Stalin and wonders whether he will be capable to use power and authority with sufficient caution due to what he termed as rudeness and defect behavior.

Lenin died in 21 January, 1924, and Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin troika become prominent again. Stalin seemed to outsmart the others as he consolidated his power base until later whan he was able to break with Kamenev and Zinoviev. He allowed development of propaganda campaigns and the development of a Stalin personality while he renamed Tsaritsin as Stalingrad. Stalin progressively ousted many of his major opponents and silenced debate about any options for development of the communist Soviet. He formed cults that hailed him with several words like "genius of mankind, the greatest genius of all times and peoples", "shining sun", "the staff of life", "hope of the future for the workers and peasants of the world", and a "great teacher and friend."

By 199, Stalin had consolidated power and firmly controlled Stalinists and launched what he called a ‘Third Revolution.’ He ordered that all peasants be collectivized and the destruction of exploiting peasants (something called Kulaks meaning fists). He had set the stage to modernize farming which he felt was the most backward sector in Russia’s economy. Stalin said that the USSR was left behind by the developed countries by between 50-100 years and he wanted the Soviet to use only 10 years to catch-up with them. He felt that this could make the USSR become one of the world’s leading industrial powers when he launched the Five Year Plan. Instead of a smooth transfer to socialism, this caused more confusion and bewilderment.

Commissars were sent to rural Russia to oversee collectivization. They met a hostile opposition in the countryside. For example in 1930, an estimated 700,000 peasants were against the government plan. The Stalinists then saw that people were against them and more problems were due after the first year implementation of the Five Year Plan produced little economic results for most people. Stalin ordered a search for class enemies who were pulling down his efforts for a collective socialism. Stalin could not agree that it is the policies that failed but chose to blame the failure on imagined external and/or internal enemies. 

Available documents suggest that Stalinists officials had absorbed and accepted party rhetoric. Communists were meant to accept and acknowledge past mistakes and pledge to the new leadership. The ‘apology ritual’ had become a new culture in Russia under Lenin but under Stalin became part of a procedure in which accused a scapegoat for a country’s errors. Records indicate that purges (called then as chistka) existed well before 1936. An example is in 1929 when expulsion of untrustworthy members led to 11% percent of membership in the ruling part. Subsequent purges like the one in 1934 were not performed against loyal party members only. Documents show that by 1933, there were about 1 million people in the concentration camps and the Great Purge was a culmination of a worsening storm.

The Earlier Purges

The first signs of the purges came when party members and activists criticized the collectivization drive. This was the perfect time for Stalin to move and dispel party members opposed to his ideas. He claimed that there were traitors in his party in March, 1930, whom he called “enemies with a party card in their pockets,” this is what culminated in the 1933-34 purge. Further, Stalin believed that as his socialistic ideas succeeded, capitalist states will try to undermine the process and as a result he and his Stalinists had o remain vigilant. Stalin believed that there were several potential enemies especially by major powers (as demonstrated during the civil war). He believed that spies were everywhere and the reason why he attacked foreigners during the first year implementation of the Five Year Plan. The Stalinists were aware of criticism within the party and they decided o mete out terror which was seen as a sign of weakness than strength the purges were therefore used to discipline local leaders and identify any conspiracy. According to Conquest (p.25, 2007), between 1932-1936 was the period in which Stalin set himself the task of breaking resistance and physical destruction of his perceived party enemies.

Stalin’s Role

It is worth noting that Stalin only made two public appearances during Great Purge. In March 1937, he chose to distance himself from unpopular decisions but took an active role as the purge unfolded like when he personally sentenced over 70,000 people to death. This shows that the purge was clearly due to his own paranoia. It is Stalin who ordered Yezhov to torture those who could not confess their ‘sins.’ In 1937-38 Stalin 357 interdiction lists that condemned 40,000 people to be executed. About 90% of these people were shot.

Targeted People

             Most prominent elements of Stalin’s purges were prominent people in the army, people in key institutions and key sectors of the economy in the Soviet, the NKVD, engineers and scientists. For example in 1934, Sergei Kirov who was a popular party leader was assassinated on Stalin’s orders prompting other later sparks by Stalin. Disguised under an emergency ‘security’ legislation that stated that people accused of being terrorists were not allowed to appeal for clemency and the secret police were to accuse them immediately. Targeted in this purge were the ‘Old Bolshevik’ elite whose leaders including Nikolai Bukharin, Grigori Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were accused of conspiring with Trotskyite t undermine communism in their country. Although they did not have any evidence, the three were sentenced to death. Other old Bolsheviks followed and later the entire lot were consigned to oblivion but interesting is that their successors soon followed them. New Stalinists who had adapted themselves to the new system were also arrested. The purge continued and affected even the army in which an estimated 35,000 military officers were either killed or imprisoned. Among the prominent corps killed included the brilliant and prominent Tukhachevsky who was the chief of general staff.

The Moscow Trials

The years 1936-38 saw very large trials of former senior communist party leaders. The leaders were accused of conspiring with the Western world and capitalists to bring down communism and assassinate Stalin. The outside world extensively covered these trials. This mesmerized even some of Lenin’s supporters who confessed and begged for death sentences. Some of trials included;

  • The 1936 trial of the "Trotskyite-Kamenevite-Zinovievite-Leftist-Counter-Revolutionary Bloc." This was a 16 member trial held in august and of which chief defendants were prominent former party leaders Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. They were accused with assassinating Sergey Kirov and plotting to assassinate Stalin. They confessed to the charges and were sentenced and executed.
  • The second trial was the one in 1937 that involved not-so-prominent 17 people who were known as "anti-Soviet Trotskyite-centre." The lot included Grigoy Sokolnikov, Yuri Piatakov and Karl Radeck who were accused of conspiring with Trosky to be members of Nazi in Germany. Out of the 17 members, thirteen were shot dead and the rest were sentenced to concentration camps where they later died.
  • In June, 1937, a group of Red Army generals were subjected to a secret trial before a military trial. The general included Mikhail Tukhachevsky.
  • Another most famous trial happened in March, 1938. The trial known as “The Trial of the Twenty-One” included 21 defendants who were accused of belonging to the "Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites." This group was led by former chairman of the communist international Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, Genrikh Yagoda (a former head of NKVD), Nikolai Krestinsky and Christian Rakovsky. This particular trial drew criticism from even sympathetic observers who had stomached earlier trials. The trial and execution of Bukharin, a Marxist theorist, captivated the whole world including communist economists from Russia. The trial marked a break with communism even from prominent communists like jay Lovetone, Bertram Wolfe and Arthur Koestler.  

 

Prominent People Who Were Executed

Nikolai Bukharin

Nikolas Bukharin was a Russian Marxist and a Bolshevik revolutionary leader. He was a prominent member of the central committee and was a supporter Joseph Stalin after Lenin’s death. He did not support Stalin’s collectivization policy and a case was brought to him during the last of Moscow Trials in 13 March, 1938. He was found to be guilty by belonging to the ‘bloc of Rights and Trotskyites’ which was a conspiratorial group. He was greatly tortured and had to confess. As a result he was sent to prison but was executed on March 15, 1938.

Alexey Rykov   

He was a Russian politician prominent as the premier of the Soviet Union from 1924-1930. Rykov did not like Lenin’s dictatorial regime and he broke ranks with Bolsheviks calling for a left-wing coalition to be formed. Despite having differences with Lenin he was appointed commissar of interior and later chairman of the Commissars. He supported Joseph Stalin but Stalin later turned against him when he formed the right-wing of the party. Stalin later in 1938 accused him being involved with a plot of assassinating him. He was found guilty and executed on 15 March, 1938.

Yezhovshchina

He was the head of the Russian secret police known as NKDV from 1936-1938. He was Stalin’s point man in organizing and supervising execution of dissidents in the Bolshevik party and in the army. He was successful in carrying out the Great Purge but by summer of 1938, Stalin had realized that the purge had gone overboard. He was relieved of his duties as the head of NKDV and was later purged.

Yagoda

He was appointed the People’s Commissar in 1934 after the death of Menzhinsky. Yagoda was instrumental in organizing the First Moscow Trial that resulted in execution politicians Lev and Grigory in 1936. He also oversaw executions in the Red Army but Stalin became disappointed with his performance. When Yagoda presented Stalin with a report on unfavorable reaction from western countries and a growing sympathy from Russians for the executed people, Stalin was furious with the report misinterpreting it as a way of Yagoda telling him to stop the purge. Stalin accused him of proving to be incompetent of exposing the Trotskyite-Zinonievite bloc and thus replaced him with Yezhov. He was later arrested in March 1937 and Yezhov accused of diamond smuggling, being a Germany spy and for being corrupt.  Stalin sprinkled some mercury in his office and accused Yagoda of trying to assassinate him. He was found guilty of treason and was shot dead with 3,000 other NKVD supporters.

 

Number of People Executed

The exact number of people that were executed during the Great Purge is not well known. According to declassified records in the Soviet archives, 1,548,366 people were detained by NKVD of whom 681,692 were shot dead. But some scholars argue that the figure could be larger than that. Conquest for example estimates that the figure could be two or three times that figure.

Conclusion

The Great Purge may have happened between 1936-36 but the origins lay well before that period. Bolsheviks had the mindset that they were never wrong. During Lenin’s presidency, Stalin was given the role of policing any faction within the party in what became the ‘On Party Unity’ of 1921. The Stalinists outmaneuvered other likely contestants after Lenin’s death in 1924 and he succeeded Lenin. Stalin and his supporters did not feel secure especially when the country slipped into the 1929 chaos. But this opened the opportunity for Stalin and his supporters to blame imagined or real opponents for the disaster. Stalin introduced the collectivism drive fuelled by the Five Year Plan that was to be accustomed to remove enemy members, check on membership and being vigilant for Bolshevik. The recently released archive documents show a shadowy and uncertain figure of Stalin but who is credited to signing death warrants of millions of Russian. 

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