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Stalin: Rise to Absolute Power

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Apollon is a research scientist. He has a BA in History, with a specialization in Roman and 20th century history.

Stalin, most likely in his 40s

One of the many retouched(or photoshopped, in today's terms) photos of Stalin, which hid some facial defects, one of them being small pox scarring.

One of the many retouched(or photoshopped, in today's terms) photos of Stalin, which hid some facial defects, one of them being small pox scarring.

Lenin is dying- what now?

Vladimir Lenin- father of the Great October Socialist Revolution- was dying in the early 1920s. However, before his death Lenin designated Joseph Stalin as his successor. If that wasn't good enough, Stalin was elected General Secretary of the Central Committee(head organ of the USSR).This didn't mean that Stalin was fully in charge. In fact, Lenin changed his mind a few times after, making Stalin's position less than fully secure. Among these poteintial heirs was Leon Trotsky.

As Lenin died, Stalin remained the number one successor, so he began to actively manufacture Lenin's cult of personality. It meant praising the deceased relovutionary as much as possible. This also included embalming Lenin's body and placing it into a mausoleum, for public display, aswell as renaming Petrograd to Leningrad.

Very soon this cult of personality grew into a secular state religion, with Lenin as the new God and Stalin as his messenger on earth. It would only make sense that the man who studied to become a priest, became a sort of Marxist Pope.

Stalin and his comrades carrying Lenin's coffin, during his funeral(1924).

Later on most from the "Old Guard", many pictured here, were removed physically.

Later on most from the "Old Guard", many pictured here, were removed physically.

Stalin vs Trotsky

Vladimir Lenin's death was only the beginning of the power struggle. Since Stalin had to deal with the opinions of others, this meant picking sides. At first Stalin sided with the right wing of his party, who supported NEP(New Economic Policy). NEP meant a partial return to capitalism, which was done for the sake of post-war economic recovery.

So, to forward his goals, Stalin sided against Trotsky. At first his allies were Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. Stalin also gave important positions in the communist party to people on his side. Furthermore, Stalin flooded the communist party full of new members in general, largely from the working class. To achieve said results, the "Man of Steel" used statewide propaganda and in person agitation in factories.

Once Stalin had defeated Trotsky, he picked fights with Kamenev and Zinoviev- his recent allies. To fight back, Kamenev and Zinoviev soon created a united opposition together with Trotsky(their recent opponent). This was against the anti-party fraction law, rendering the trio kicked from the Politburo(one of the main organs of the communist party) in 1926-1927.

A bit later they were also expelled from the central Committee and eventually from the communist party.

Trotsky reading a newspaper in Turkey, 1931

Trotsky spent his last years of life in Mexico

Stalin vs NEP

As Trotsky was expelled from the USSR in 1929, the so called "united opposition" was defeated. Now Stalin could focus on destroying his enemies on the right wing of the communist party.
Going against the right wing meant going against NEP. The main opponent now was Nikolai Bukharin was the head of the Communist International. Besides him there was also Alexei Rykov, who ran the Sovnarkom(Soviet People's Commiserate), aswell as Mikhail Tomsky(he ran the workers' unions). All of them were fellow politburo and central committee members.

At first Stalin didn't want to fight his allies, but so it happened that not everyone was willing to get rid of NEP(certainly not Bukharin).
To get rid if NEP, Stalin used state propaganda and speaking in party meetings.

NEP meant that certain groups of people would be able to accumulate more wealth- the kulaks(aka wealthy peasants) and also a new group of small capitalists- the NEPmen. Stalin started to employ the use of the OGPU(Joint State Political Directorate) against so called "capitalist specialists", aswell as the kulaks and the NEPmen. Many of these people suffered the same fate.

As for Stalin's enemies in the party- all of this lead to a similar outcome as before. Bukharin(in 1929), Rykov and Tomsky(both in 1930) were removed from the Politburo. All of these men were demoted to less important positions- for now...

"Let's eliminate the kulaks as a class!" Soviet poster, 1930

Not all kulaks were ready to part with their land and grain, so it was often taken by force.

Reform in the USSR

Now Stalin could replace NEP with his 5 year plan and further the tightening of his grip on the Soviet Union. The 5 year plan meant a return to "pure" socialism, intense and accelerated industrialization, collectivization, aswell as a new class strugle(class terror).

To realize his 5 year plan successfully, aswell as to get rid of NEP, Stalin had rapidly grown the communist party. By 1930 it reached a member count of 1.5 million. Now it consisted of many more members of the working class. These new party members were used to get rid of the kulaks, NEPmen and disobedient state bureaucrats.

Stalin got rid of the taxes for peasants and instead simply demanded land and grain. Soon after that land was turned into collective farms. The ones who lost their land were deported to other parts of the USSR, often having to join the newly formed collective farms.

This also marked the era of mock trials. For the sake of erradicating anyone that was deemed the enemy. Said trials were scripted, often with the guilty party actively playing along. This was achieved through torture.

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The church was still alive in the USSR and religion hadn't yet been phased out. Therefore many churches were destroyed or turned into wearhouses and much of the clergy was sent to prison, labor camps or the basement of Lubyanka building(headquarters of the OGPU).

The mock trials, resettlement of peasants, mass imprisonment into labor camps and collectivization created an environment of fear. Fear and paranoia helped Stalin gain even more influence and control over everyone else in the USSR.

The requisition of grains from kulaks in the Soviet Union, 1933

stalin-road-to-absolute-power

Consequences of the first 5 year plan

The reforms implemented by Stalin had negative consequences on the Soviet economy. The peasants, along with the economy, had to suffer especially hard due to Stalin's implemented collectivization. Among the main, initial consequences were famine and starvation(in certain regions). Taking grain and land by force, extreme rationing of food, the creation of collective farms, mass deportation and imprisonment of slightly wealthier farmers all lead to a monstrous famine.

This famine was not the first in Soviet history, but it was vicious nevertheless. This famine hit Soviet Ukraine especially hard in 1932-1933. This was known as the Holodomor, taking with it up to 5 million people.

However, there was always someone else to blame for these problems- the spies, the thieving kulaks, the buourgoise, the NEPmen, foreign invaders and also trotskyist.
In fact, Trotksy and people who were accused of supporting him soon enough became a leading scapegoat. This newly reignited class warfare also served as a means of cleansing the USSR and the communist party. The percieved and exaggerated presence of enemies created a justification for this class warfare/terror.

Starved peasants on a street in Kharkiv, Soviet Ukraine 1933

Ukraine wasn't the only region suffering from famine in the USSR, but it was the most negatively affected.

The final stage

By the early 1930s Joseph Stalin had no real opposition in the USSR, nor in the party. However, for the Man of Steel this was not enough. Now it was time to cleanse the top levels of the USSR- the party higher ups, people in the military and also the secret services.
As the end of 1934 came Stalin's long time friend and ally Sergei Kirov was assassinated. This brought back fear and paranoia, aswell as a reason to hunt for enemies on the inside.

In this spirit, the trials of the "old guard" of the communist party began in 1936. These trials were not legit, as the outcome was known beforehand and everything was properly rehearsed. These people, such as Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, confessed with great enthusiasm and took an active part in these trials. Of course, every single time this was achieved through torture, often conducted in the basement of the Lubjanka building(NKVD HQ).

Regardless of what kind of promises were made to these people and therefore regardless of how enthusiastically these men confessed to crimes they didn't do, crimes that might have never even taken place, all of them died at the end or were sent to labor camps.

Not everyone went to trial, as Stalin encouraged hurling false accusations against fellow party members, aswell as blame shifting. This helped stir fear and distrust even in the upper levels of the USSR. No one felt safe, everyone was under suspicion.

In this spirit of cleansing Stalin also made sure to dethrone the head of the NKVD Genrikh Yagoda. He was replaced by Nikolai Yezhov, arrested, tried and executed.

Yezhov was especially cruel and took his role as the head executioner very enthusiastically. This applied not only to the party, but also the army. For that reason Soviet marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was one of the people tried and executed. A lot of these men of the military had fought in the revolution and the wars that preceded it. None of it mattered.

By 1938 the purging had become so intense, it was seen as counterproductive, at least by Stalin. Therefore, Nikolai Yezhov was replaced by Lavrenti Beria and soon arrested, tried and executed. This proved that being purged was nearly inevitable.

Stalin and Sergo Ordjonikidze, 1934

Sergo later killed himself to avoid being purged by Stalin.

Final thoughts

Stalin was a ruthless man with a great thirst for power. In his pursuit for absolute power no one that got in the way was spared, not friends, nor family even. No matter how much pain and suffering came of it, the people came out worshipping Stalin. For this man the end justified the means through and through.

The number one book about Stalin I can recommend

Main sources used

Service, Robert. Stalin: a biography. London: Macmillan, 2004.

Deutscher, Isaac. Stalin: a political biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia : a history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in power : the revolution from above, 1928-1941. New York; London: Norton, 1992.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Stalin

Stalin and his friend marshal Voroshilov

Climent Voroshilov was the Minister of Defense of the USSR for 15 years. He was also one of a few Stalin's long time friends.

© 2022 Apollon

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