Few reigns of absolute power in modern history can compare to that of Joseph Stalin, as Premier of the Soviet Union. Through years of seemingly contrary ideologies, and policies reaching epic proportions of repression and state-sanctioned cruelty, Stalin effectively led a campaign of unrelenting terror in order to, at least ostensibly, maintain the integrity of the communist state of the Soviet Union. Actual statistics vary and different sources report different results, acts, and motivations, as will be seen, but it is generally agreed that something like a million Russians were killed on orders of Stalin's government. Precisely how many others were imprisoned, tortured, and/or fled the country or were exiled can only be estimated. In these few years of 1936 to 1938, Stalin's Great Purge essentially eclipsed in governmental brutality any previous, historical such practices.
In hindsight, it is difficult to conceive of why a great world power would adopt policies of cruelty and repression which would surely resonate to the outside world, as well as dramatically undermine any hope of a peaceful, contented population. Moreover, Stalin himself was no “sudden” tyrant, thrust into power unexpectedly and not at all equipped to deal with it; as will be seen, long before attaining the rank of Premier, Stalin's life had been inextricably linked to that of the Soviet Union's communist essence, and his career progressed through the most influential channels of the party. It seems, decades later, unthinkable that an experienced leader would consider radical persecution of the public as a viable means of ensuring the safety of the state. This paradox in itself, however, serves to provide the answer. The turbulent ascent of communism in Russia had been, and still was, a complicated and volatile affair. An empire had been crushed after many centuries, and the Soviet Revolution had been revolutionary in a way few can properly imagine, as literally millions of slaves were freed from epoch after epoch of imperial power. Consequently, the communist regime was infused by a kind of desperation, as were its leaders; nothing whatsoever could be allowed to undermine this greatest of revolutions. Then, Stalin himself was precariously placed, for no office in such a massive undertaking was actually safe from intrigue or danger, and it seems evident that Stalin was determined to safeguard his own rule. As horrific and inhumane as the Great Purge was, it was essentially engaged in to both secure a national ideology and government still vulnerable, and maintain one man at the apex of power.
Background: The Soviet Union
To have any real understanding of the impact of the creation of the Soviet Union, it is necessary to have a sense of Russia's immense history. This was a land which, while sharing certain similarities with the great European nations to its west, was nonetheless a world of its own. For one thing, there was size; the sheer expanse of Russia utterly dwarfed any other European power, stretching from Austria and Poland in the west to the Black Sea in the south, and ranging as far east as the continent's eastern edge. Peter the Great and, later, Catherine the Great would add further territories to their domains, conquests rendered relatively assured by the extraordinary numbers of Russians within the lands. Only the Romans rivaled this imperial expanse, or could boast such numbers of citizens; by 1811, the census taking recorded at least 43 million Russians (Ragsdale 60). Obviously, this translated to military power on a level greatly removed from any other world power, which in turn allowed for the acquisition of further territories.
More striking, however, in terms of historical impact and the subsequent revolution, was the nature of the vast majority of these Russians. A relative handful of nobles aside, Russians were serfs, a term which incorporates both “peasant” and “slave” in its meaning. The only “right” belonging to the serf class was that they could not be legally murdered by their owners. Beyond that, there were no liberties of being at all. Children were typically sold by newspaper ads, marriages were ordered, and serfs were frequently given, by the thousands, by Catherine the Great as a reward to courtiers. Moreover, there was no sense within the privileged minority that these practices violated ethics in any way; serfs were viewed, quite literally, as human cattle, and the average Russian aristocrat did not believe that they possessed human souls (Troyat 345). Selling, mortgaging, beating, and any other form of complete ownership was considered perfectly correct , and this was a national mode of life in practice for long centuries. It may be reasonably surmised that the monumental nation of Russia was long poised to undergo massive disruptions, to address and reverse such barbaric conditions.
Equally potent in eventually enabling an overthrow, and inextricably linked to the way the common people perceived their lives and their country, was the rule of the Russian Czars. Unlike the European monarchs, the Czars and Czarinas of Russia - most notably, the Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine – enjoyed absolute power because there was no parliamentary process to act as a legal check on their rule (Chapman 2). Consequently, there was as well no defining authority ensuring their right to rule, and this led to an ironic aspect of such immeasurable power; that is, it was shockingly vulnerable, because Czars often came into power through assassination. The ongoing dread of such a violent removal then encouraged greater tyranny; very simply, if a Czar had reason to suspect potential threats to his crown, he only had to strike first, and imprison or murder the rival prince. (Chapman 2). This was a land, again, unprecedented in scope of injustice by virtue of size and duration of being. It may well be, in fact, that the immensity of Russia alone allowed for such long ages of brutal oppression, for it is likely that the serf population saw their country, not as a nation, but as the world itself. This is supported by the nearly fanatical degrees to which superstition, and the Greek Orthodox Church, was embraced by the peasants. Russian merchants, desperate to remain above serfdom, and serfs as well were extremists, and religious icons were seized upon for meaning often unrelated to orthodoxy (Hartley 184). Serfs uniformly held to a desperate kind of fatalism, having little else to turn to.
These circumstances of imperial Russia are crucial, as they go to better comprehending the revolution to come in the 20th century. That revolution, in fact, had something of a precedent, in terms of a popular uprising out to overthrow the existing, imperial order. Between 1773 and 1774, Empress Catherine watched with growing alarm as a rebellion spread from the west, led by a peasant name Pugachev and determined to abolish the increasing constrictions of serfdom. Only by employing her vast armies was Catherine able to triumph, but it is important to note that violence alone quelled the rebellion, and not any palliative measures put forth by the empire. History records that Catherine herself, as would Czar Nicholas, was unhappy with serfdom and long examined possible means to reform it (Borrero 311). Neither actually did, however, as it must certainly be valid to question the motives of these rulers. It is agreeable to think that enlightened, absolute sovereigns wish to establish humane conditions for all their subjects, but it is more probable, given the other circumstances of their reigns, that fear motivated these abandoned impulses.
However it was occurring, the changes were coming. Catherine saw in her reign the execution of the French nobility, as well as the American fight for independence; both disturbed her as unacceptable examples of weak rule (Troyat 298). Later Czars would feel the force of the changes in the world, which had reached a scale to penetrate Russian insularity. The Romanovs, the last, great dynasty of Russian imperialism, was drawing to a fateful end as the 20th century approached. Peasant and serf classes were rising up in greater numbers, and in more frequent incidents, as the seeds of communism began to take root. Ironically, and self-destructively, Czar Nicholas II reacted to the massive rumblings for change by imposing even greater autocratic controls, with entitlements to nobles to crush insurgents, and by refusing to entertain the necessary transformation of the people from subjects to actual citizens ( Wade 2). The consequences of this imperial posture were inevitable. By 1916, it was, the common knowledge around the world that the reign of Tsar Nicholas was crumbling (Hohenberg 101).
As Stalin's Great Purge must be viewed with an understanding of the history before it, so too is it essential that the foundations of the revolution he himself would exploit be seen. Most importantly, there can be no overstatement of the immensity of this change. The last empire of the Western world, and also its largest, was dissolving, and the sheer size of this circumstance greatly contributed to the turbulence that would follow, including Stalin's oppressive purge decades later. If the Russian Czars had been able to exert rule over such vast domains only by exercising absolute power, the revolutionary successors would find the size of Russia equally problematic.
What ultimately fueled the Russian Revolution of 1917 was, of course, the discontent of the people. This, however, was composed of various elements, all of which would serve the Bolsheviks well in establishing a communist state. The last decades of Russian imperialism saw a desperate, and oddly successful, attempt to bring the industrial age to an immense nation which had always been an agrarian society. The success lay in the fact the industrialization did indeed sweep over Russia; the dilemma was that this new basis for the economy, while eviscerating the traditional power of the nobles and the landowners, kept the common people in living conditions as bad as, or worse than, what they had known as peasants and serfs. Whole families lived in single rooms, many workers lived only in actual barracks, and work days were lengthy and arduous. The entire social structure of Russia was changing with the industrialization, but not in a way beneficial save to the “new nobility” of the factory owner. Living conditions were brutal, disease became rampant throughout the nation, and alcoholism first began to emerge as a national illness (Wade 5). This was a nation virtually explosive, and barely contained.
Riots and strikes occurred, and at increasing levels. The response of the Czar was panic; Nicholas II turned to his military to suppress these outbursts, but the tide had already turned, and Russian troops joined those they were to subjugate. With the deposition of Nicholas II in 1917 came the Provisional Government, which had difficulty in combating the various, new parties insistent on representing the people and establishing their own varieties of social-democracy. None of these, however, could compete with the force of Vladimir Lenin. Having been in exile in Switzerland, Lenin saw this extraordinary opportunity to bring Marxism to Russia, and his Bolshevik party soon took the fore as the dominant voice of Russia. He would be aided by two, enormously valuable factors: in 1905, Karl Marx had become a known presence throughout Russia, and had greatly motivated the violent revolution of 1905, and; the Bolshevik ideology of communist thinking was very much in accord with the ideas of the unions which had developed all over the nation, since the onset of the industrial age in Russia (Salomoni 27).
Lenin's agenda was not, by any means, achieved effortlessly. When he came to Russia in 1917, in fact, he was disturbed by how the moderate parties were eager to work with the provisional government, which he viewed as an autocratic abomination. By carefully moderating his approach, however, Lenin gradually brought the Lenin-Marxist Bolsheviks to dominance (Rabinowitch xxiii). With the executions of the Romanov royal family in July of that year, a symbolic, if horrific, step was taken. Long centuries of imperial rule was over, and a new nation would be constructed on socialist principles. It is essential to note, as will be evident later, that the apparent motives of the revolution, as well as the immense dissatisfaction of the people with the oppression they had so long endured, would eventually translate to something of a recreation of the same, dictatorial abuses which bred the very rebellion, particularly in the form of Stalin's Great Purge.
Background: Joseph Stalin
The history of Joseph Stalin reveals a decidedly political trajectory, and from his earliest actions. Born into poverty in Georgia, his youth was marked by a series of efforts to both escape the constrictions of his life and change the world around him. While still in his teens, he had become exposed to the work of Marx, and was deeply attracted to it. Militant rebellion seems to have been in his core; enduring punishments in a seminary, “He developed a vicious, ferocious hatred against the school administration...hatred against all authority” (Zuehlke 21). By the turn of the century, Stalin was moving in radical circles, and even competing to an extent with Lenin in his ambition to sway public opinion and foster Marxism. Ultimately, however, the more impressionable Stalin was glad to become a disciple of Lenin's, for he shared Lenin's view that only the work of truly dedicated individuals, willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve great ends, could effect the change needed in Russia (Gellately 45). The new century was upon them, and a feverish Joseph Stalin devoted himself to espousing Lenin's causes as his own.
The two would meet at a conference in St. Petersburg, in 1905. Stalin had been elected by his own faction to represent Caucasus at this gathering of Bosheviks, and he and his comrades traveled in disguise that December; the year was violent, and the Czar had given orders that all dissidents be seized. Careful to maintain a false identity, Stalin finally met his idol. What occurred has since fascinated biographers, for Lenin found a young worshiper who, while in awe of him and his rhetoric, was not afraid to defy him. Stalin saw Lenin as a “mountain eagle”, but he was never so abashed as to be willing to remain silent (Montefiore 147). This was an epoch meeting, wherein two men of intense energy and commitment saw in one another extremely useful attributes. Impressed by this courage, passion, and intellect, the eagle took Stalin “under his wing”.
Joseph Stalin's rise to power and prominence was steady and exacting. Much of this success was due to how Stalin actually exploited his own, Bolshevik party; Lenin's support was a key springboard, and gave him immeasurable access to the internal workings of the party, but it was his own machinations that drove his career. The politics within the Bolshvik party, so dedicated to the cause of the people, were not appreciably different than those of any other, large, legislative and governing organization. Power was concentrated at the upper tiers, but strategic advantages could be had by directly connecting to local party bodies, which in turn formed the vastly powerful Central Committee. In 1922, Stalin engineered his placement as General Secretary to this committee, and it was a strategically brilliant move. The rank, as with Stalin's past offices and titles, was not especially impressive or powerful. However, this particular office gave Stalin valuable influence in patronage (Mawdsley 17).. Essentially, Stalin climbed to the top rank of Soviet power, not by promoting himself to secure the greatest offices, but by working within the administrative system itself to gain more effective control.
As with the other elements of Russia's modern and ancient past, and more directly applicable to what would become Stalinist practice, a component of the force behind the Great Purge is evident in this ascent to great power. Virtually everything about Joseph Stalin's history as a man is a textbook case of extreme, personal drive fueled by deprivation and centered on an ideological concept. This was a fierce personality and one which, as time went on and power was amassed, displayed increasingly typical symptoms of paranoia and erratic temperament. A great many historians and biographers have sought to get beneath Stalin's own, overt “modesty”, and have affirmed that this professed humility masked a deeply disturbed pathology. Lenin himself was never truly comfortable with Stalin, and the two great leaders, joined in so much else, were never close (Ziolkowski 32). In psychological terms, it could be said that Joseph Stalin was a dictator, or tyrant, waiting to happen, as all the components of his life and work point to so emphatic, and ultimately destructive, a nature.
The Premier and The Great Purge
It is interesting that modern history, so unified in its condemnation of the Holocaust orchestrated under Adolf Hitler's regime in Germany, should be so less emphatic regarding the remarkably similar actions of Joseph Stalin, and in the same period. More precisely, as notorious as the Great Purge has become, it pales in common perception with the horrors of Nazi Germany, even as its acts and results were so alike. The slaughter and oppression set in motion by Stalin was, as was Hitler's, conducted on a wholesale scale, and equally targeted at those of foreign extraction. Semionov, Chairman of the Special Troika for Moscow, testified that, from 1937 through 1938, Poles, Germans, and Latvians, along with other, non-Russian nationalities, were arrested and killed without any evidence of sedition necessary whatsoever. Illiterates were murdered, as were children and pregnant women. Whole families were shot as spies based on nothing beyond the fact of their ethnicity (Rogovin 10). What was occurring, blatantly, was genocide, thinly disguised as efforts to secure national security.
In understanding this crucial element of the Purge, an influence which at least partially explains it emerges. Like Hitler, Stalin had developed a specific and racially-driven paranoia. Like Hitler, Stalin attempted to mask as necessary efforts to safeguard a government and nation, which were in fact outrageous criminal actions. This parallel between the leaders may be assumed simply because it is known that Stalin evinced a particular regard for Hitler. In 1934, Hitler secured his position as party leader by destroying the threat of SA Chief of Staff Ernst Roehm, and in a violent fashion; Stalin made no secret of his admiration for this bold move, in which a leader weeded out and eliminated internal dangers to the status quo and his own authority. It was of no importance to Stalin that key figures around the world, and in Germany as well, viewed this as an irresponsible and unjustified measure (Brackman 230). For Stalin, Hitler was merely behaving as a great leader must, and Stalin began a long series of overtures for friendship with him.
The more basic realities of how and why Stalin conducted his Great Purge reflect these elements of personal motivations and psychological issues. On one level, the reasons behind Stalin's actions were relatively sequential, and even obvious. For years, there had been significant and growing opposition to Stalinist policies, particularly in regard to how the nation should move forward. Stalin and his Central Committee, true to his frenetic character, supported rapid change, and on a grand scale. They sought both the promotion of collective agriculture and as rapid an increase in industrialization as possible; opposition camps recommended a more gradual change. Ultimately, this economic planning dispute was one of three major issues that both created opposition to Stalin and was created by his policies. The others were more “administrative”, in that they were concerned with control of territorial party machinery and how any opposition should be dealt with (Getty 18). For a number of years, these issues, potentially highly disruptive, were nonetheless addressed peacefully. Stalin used his power to repress dissidents, but this did not go beyond, at worst, public censure and the losing of offices. However, by 1936, these three issues had reached a point where they converged into a mass which threatened the existence of Stalin's authority as the Premier (Getty 26). In Stalin's estimation, the situation had become absolutely critical.
The deciding point very likely occurred, actually, two years before the official Purge commenced, when Sergei Kirov, a high-ranking official who had been designated to follow Stalin, was murdered in late December of 1934. Even as peaceful, if tense, methods were then being deployed to handle the internecine conflicts of the party, this was a striking declaration of anti-Stalinist opposition intent. Rather than seek to assassinate Stalin himself, the revolutionaries responsible for Kirov's murder were evidently after the destruction of the entire apparatus of the Stalinist base, rather than merely its current leader. Stalin's reaction was swift and brutal, involving the torture and interrogation of hundreds, until the murderers were found. This set the stage for tens of thousands of “secret executions” to follow, which then devolved into the horrors of the Great Purge itself.
Noteworthy in these actions is an utter absence of even the most primitive conventions. Officials both minor and important were assured that their families would be spared if they confessed to covert dealings against the Stalin regime; many then confessed to acts they had not committed, but gained no mercy for their families (Skousen 144). It is important to recognize, also, that Stalin alone did not carry out the Great Purge, and this has meaning beyond the obvious facts of orchestration. The disturbing reality was that, as he ascended to greater power and the role of Premier, Stalin created high-ranking officers out of men of truly dubious character. Some were outright violent. This served Stalin's agenda; he wanted to invest these characters with power, and thus secure himself a personal “army” of officials both ruthless and completely dependent upon him. For instance, there was Yezhov, granted high office in the Central Committee by Stalin over years, and universally known as the “bloodthirsty dwarf”. Then, Stalin's own secretary, Poskrebyshev, was coarse and virtually completely uneducated (Conquest 15). Like a gangster, Stalin surrounded himself with dangerous men who would not hesitate to carry out his orders.
Moreover, and disturbingly in keeping with a mentality in the grip of paranoia, Stalin decimated the military in his Great Purge, clearly fearful of a shifting of allegiance. Middle and upper ranks of the Red Army were wiped out through dismissals or worse, as the commissars above them were also removed (Bialer 298). Hitler took command of his military; Stalin, gripped by suspicion and fearful of revolution within his own ranks, eradicated his own. This action alone indicates an extreme state of paranoia, for even an especially fearful leader would nonetheless more rely on the support of his nation's armed forces.
The strange reality is that, even today, there is no definitive explanation for Stalin's Great Purge, and theories ranging from only paranoia fueling it, to a complex and devious scheme to control foreign policy, are entertained (Daniels 173). What appears evident, however, is that a variety of potent factors led to the devastation wrought by Stalin. Initially and increasingly aware of actual dissension within the communist party, and of a kind resistant to his own authority as premier, Stalin began his “reign of terror” in a specifically political, if extraordinarily, wide-ranging way. No one with any office within the party, high or low, was above suspicion, with the exception of Stalin's hand-picked and criminal confederates. Then, the political agenda was expanded to echo Hitler's genocidal activities; that is to say, as party opposition was dangerous to Stalin, it was most likely to be found within those ethnic groups and populations either removed from Russia or annexed by it. For two years, and with occurrences of brutality beyond this range, Joseph Stalin oversaw and commanded homicide on a massive scale, in the name of a “purging” of threats to the Soviet state.
As historian Robert Conquest notes, Stalin's Great Purge did not arise from nothing: “Like any other historical phenomenon, it had its roots in the past” (3). In the case of Russia, those roots run very deep. For long centuries, this population, one of the world's largest, was virtually in slavery. A minute percentage of nobles and landowners enjoyed freedom; everyone else was a commodity, and even the deliberate interest in more enlightened thought from the West, as manifested by Catherine the Great, was not sufficient to inspire a liberation of the people. Then, the radical influx of industrialization only served to introduce the common people to a new, and perhaps worse, form of servitude.
With revolution came, naturally, revolutionary change, and a vast nation was recreated. Unfortunately, ideals may be lost in the machinery of politics, and human ambitions – and dysfunctions – may overtake what were worthy agendas. In the case of Joseph Stalin, all the typical components of great leadership were present, then horribly warped. Most appalling, in fact, is this very simplicity of reason, as it was the force of one, unbalanced man which was responsible for untold monstrosities. Repercussions may be terrible, but they are effects, and not reasons. Consequently, as brutal and inhumane as the Great Purge was, it may be asserted that it was engaged in to maintain a desperately fought-for government, and preserve one man at the apex of political power.