The flag of the Soviet Union - the red of Communism is shown with the Hammer of the Industrial Workers, the Sickle of the Agricultural Labourer and the Star of the Soviet.
The flag of the Soviet Union - the red of Communism is shown with the Hammer of the Industrial Workers, the Sickle of the Agricultural Labourer and the Star of the Soviet.

THE BIG QUESTIONSHow did Stalin gain and hold on to power?What was the impact of Stalin’s economic policies?
HEADLINE QUESTIONSWhy did Stalin, and not Trotsky, emerge as Lenin’s successor?Why did Stalin launch the ‘Purges’?What methods did Stalin use to control the Soviet Union?How complete was Stalin’s control over the Soviet Union by 1941?Why did Stalin introduce the Five-Year Plans?Why did Stalin introduce collectivisation?How successful were Stalin’s economic changes?How were the Soviet people affected by these changes?

CONTENT THAT YOU NEED TO KNOWLenin’s death and the struggle for power;Reasons for Stalin’s emergence as leader by 1928;Stalin’s dictatorship;Use of terror and labour camps;The Purges;Stalin’s use of propaganda, official culture and the cult of personality;Stalin’s economic policies and their impact;The modernisation of Soviet industry;The Five-Year Plans;Collectivisation in agriculture and the kulaks;Life in the Soviet Union and the differing experiences of social groups, ethnic minorities and women.
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The struggle for power
Joseph Djugashvili - better known by his party name: Stalin (meaning the man of steel)
Joseph Djugashvili - better known by his party name: Stalin (meaning the man of steel)

  • Joseph Djugashvili was born in 1879 in Georgia in southern Russia. At some point in the years from 1907 to 1914, he changed his name from Djugashvili to Stalin. This meant ‘man of steel’.
  • In 1917 Stalin was editor of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, but otherwise played no special part in the events of 1917.
  • In 1918 he was appointed Commissar for Nationalities in November after the Bolsheviks had seized power. In 1919 he became a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, the equivalent of the Cabinet.
  • In 1922, the post of General Secretary of the Bolshevik Party became vacant. No one was prepared to take his place. The other Bolshevik leaders regarded it as a boring and unexciting job. Eventually the post was offered to Stalin, who accepted it immediately.

Why did Stalin become general secretary?
  • The first reason was that it immediately promoted him to one of the most important posts in the Bolshevik Party and Russia. In effect Joseph Stalin became the third most important man in Russia.
  • The second reason was that the post of General Secretary gave him opportunities that he would never have got anywhere else.
  • As General Secretary Stalin got to hear about everything that was happening in Russia. he heard about every post that became vacant, about every meeting that was held, about every decision taken.
  • He set about making sure that every post was filled by someone loyal to him, every meeting considered his point of view, every decision went his way.
  • Over the next two years Stalin steadily built up a network of people who he could trust all over Russia.

Why did Stalin and not Trotsky become leader of the Soviet Union in 1928?
Lenin's Political Testament
Images like this were enhanced to highlight the positive relationship and the obvious choice of Stalin as Lenin's successor - the reality was very different but no one was to find out in time to stop his ruthless climb up to the top.
Images like this were enhanced to highlight the positive relationship and the obvious choice of Stalin as Lenin's successor - the reality was very different but no one was to find out in time to stop his ruthless climb up to the top.

  • In 1922, Lenin suffered a serious stroke and was a virtual invalid for the rest of his life.
  • This allowed Joseph Stalin to play a much more prominent role in the government of Russia. He visited Lenin regularly to keep him informed.
  • On 25 December 1922 Lenin drew up a Political Testament, in which he summarised the good and bad points of all of the leading Bolsheviks. He then stated that Trotsky should succeed him when he died.
  • Twelve days later Lenin added a further section to the Testament, in which he advised the other leaders to get rid of Stalin. He then gave the document to his wife with instructions to hand it to the Central Committee after his death.
  • In his Political Testament, Lenin named Trotsky as his successor and recommended that Stalin should be dismissed from the post of General Secretary of the Party.
  • The Testament was handed to the Central Committee in May 1924, by Lenin's widow, but the other Bolshevik leaders decided to keep the Testament secret. They did not want Trotsky to succeed Lenin.
  • Trotsky was outspoken and arrogant and unpopular with the other Bolshevik leaders. This gave Stalin the chance to become the ruler of the Soviet Union.
  • In 1924 the Soviet Union was ruled by a committee of Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin.
  • But Stalin soon began to conspire with the right wing in the Communist Party, Bukharin and Rykov so that he could get rid of Kamenev and Zinoviev.
Soviet Cartoon (1927) - Kamenev, Trotsky and Zinoviev all depicted as members of a family, to show their alleged closeness.

  • He attacked the plans of the left wing to bring about rapid industrialisation in Russia and sided with the supporters of NEP.
  • But once he had got rid of the left wing, Stalin then turned on Bukharin and Rykov and in 1928 emerged as the sole ruler of the Soviet Union.
  • All of his opponents found that he had so much support in the party that opposition was useless. He then introduced much greater plans for industrialisation than the left wing had ever thought of.

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The Purges of the 1930s
A French cartoon "Visit the Pyramids of the USSR" - political satire refering to the Purges.

  • In the 1930s, Stalin began to get rid of anyone who he suspected of opposing him. These attempts became known as the Purges.
  • At first the purges concentrated upon technical experts, who Stalin blamed for the failures of the First Five Year Plan. They were accused of sabotage and there was a series of trials in 1930-1
  • In 1932 more than 800,000 members of the party were expelled, but the real purges began with the murder of Sergei Kirov in December 1934.
  • He was the Communist Party leader in Leningrad and he may well have been murdered on Stalin’s orders because he had become too popular.
  • The purges lasted from 1934 to 1938; at least 7,000,000 people disappeared.

Who were purged?
  • Bolshevik leaders who Stalin had forced out in 1925 to 1927. Managers of industries who did not meet their targets for production.
  • Poets, writers, artists, musicians, anyone creative who might have ideas which Stalin did not like. Millions of ordinary Soviet citizens, who often did not know what they had done to anger Stalin.
  • Scientists, engineers, experts of any kind who Stalin did not trust or understand. Only loyal party officials, who accepted Stalin’s decision without question were safe.
  • Army and Navy officers; every Admiral of the Soviet fleet, three of the five Marshals of the Red Army, 90% of the generals and more than half of the officers of the Red Army

What were the Show Trials?
A British cartoon depicting the nature of the Show Trials - Stalin's attempt to legitimise the execution of his enemies in the party.

  • The leading Bolsheviks were given ‘Show Trials’, where they forced to confess to ridiculous crimes which they could not possibly have committed. They were accused of sabotage and treason and of murdering Kirov.
  • The aim of the Show Trials was to get rid of all the Old Bolsheviks who knew the truth about Lenin and Stalin.
  • They all confessed to the crimes that they were accused of, usually because they were told that their families would be left alone if they did.
  • Stalin also wanted to destroy the reputation of Trotsky.
  • The results of the trials were announced to the world. Altogether, 35 of the leading Old Bolsheviks were executed in 1936-8.

What effects did the Purges have?
  • The Red Army lost almost all its experienced officers. In 1941 it stood no chance against the German army.
  • Science and technology suffered as new inventions were stopped. Stalin actually prevented development in some areas by clinging to outdated ideas.
  • Industry suffered because managers were unwilling to try anything new.
  • Literature art and music were all stifled. Only Stalin's favourite form of art, Socialist Realism was accepted. This showed workers striving to create the Soviet Union.
  • By eliminating older figures, Stalin was able to promote younger men who owed their success to him. This made them completely loyal.
  • For example, Lavrenti Beria, who became the head of the NKVD, Georgi Malenkov, who was expected to be Stalin’s successor.

For further details on the Purges follow the link below:

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Propaganda and censorship
  • In the 1930s Stalin began to rewrite the history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. He made out that he was much more important than he really had been before he came to power.
  • Textbooks and encyclopaedias were destroyed or altered. Children in school had to paste over pages in their books with the new versions of what had happened.

Why did Stalin do this?
  • He wanted to destroy the reputations of the other Bolshevik leaders. This would explain why he had put them on trial and had them executed.
  • He picked on Trotsky in particular, because Lenin had chosen him as his successor. He accused him of treason and said that it he had done nothing to help Russia.
  • Stalin claimed that he had had been responsible for the successes in the Civil War in 1918 to 1920.
  • He wanted to make out that he had Lenin had been very close friends and that only he knew what Lenin had intended to do in Russia. This would explain why Stalin had become the leader and would make Russians accept him.
  • He had made sure that Lenin’s body was preserved in a huge mausoleum in Red Square and encouraged Soviet citizens to visit it.
  • He wanted to build himself up to be all-powerful and stop anyone opposing his ideas. This became known as the ‘Cult of Personality'. Stalin made out that he was a superman who never made any mistakes.

What was the Cult of Personality?
  • Stalin created the impression that he was a genius at everything. He was described as the ‘wisest man of the twentieth century’, the ‘genius of the age’.
  • The Soviet people were told that he was never wrong. This protected Stalin from any further challenges.
  • He expected love and worship, not respect and obedience. Stalin made sure that everyone knew about his successes. Huge rallies were held in his honour.
  • He used many forms of propaganda to pass on the news, but his favourite form was paintings and sculptures. These appeared all over Russia.
  • Stalin was shown meeting smiling people, opening factories and dams, and he always looked rather taller and fitter than he actually was.

  • Propaganda and censorship were reinforced by education, which became compulsory for four years in 1930. This was later extended to seven years.
  • Students had to abide by strict discipline and wear uniform. Examinations were set every year to ensure that progress was made.
  • If students did not work satisfactorily, the pay of their parents could be reduced.
  • All school subjects ere designed to glorify Stalin. Only one history textbook was in use and that had apparently been written by Stalin himself.
  • References to the Old Bolsheviks were removed and in their places were the names of cronies of Stalin.
  • In the mid-1930s, changes took place so quickly, that it was impossible to rewrite books as people were disgraced and eliminated.
  • School-children were given new versions of pages to paste into books to cover up photographs of party officials who had been executed.

The 1936 Constitution
  • The new constitution looked very impressive. It guaranteed democracy, equality, freedom of worship and political freedom, amongst other things.
  • But it did not amount to anything in reality. The needs of the Communist Party could override all other considerations.

How effective was Stalin's control of the Soviet Union?
  • In the party hierarchy and the government Stalin inspired fear, but this led many officials to lie and falsify figures.
  • On the streets of the Soviet Union, there was an increase of crime, alcoholism and divorce.

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Economic and Social change, 1928-41
Poster propaganda to convince peasants to volunteer to join a collective farm. It reads "Comrade, come join our Kolkhoz" and the subtle images of clean and healthy people on a tractor with a woman having a lead role highlighted the dream that Communist promised to deliver.
Collectivisation was part of the First Five Year Plan. It was an attempt to get rid of the ownership of land by ordinary people and an attempt to solve the food problem in the Soviet Union.
Food rationing had been introduced in 1928 because peasants had begun to hoard grain in an effort to force the price up.
It was also an attempt to destroy the Kulaks, who Stalin hated and feared. They made profits and employed others, but they were also independent and resisted central control.
Russian peasants looking at posters of other peasants and Kulaks. Kulaks and other wealthy people such as Capitalists were often depicted as fat or as pigs to highligth the possibility of them being greedy. This sort of propaganda was successful enough to actively encourage many people to become involved in the programme of dekulakisation.

Stalin hoped that he would be able to sell wheat abroad to raise foreign exchange to buy new technology.
Stalin wanted to make the best use of machinery; machine tractor stations were set up which would serve the surrounding farms.
Two types of Collective Farms were set up, Sovkhozes, or State Farms, where all the land was owned by the state, all the produce went to the state and workers were paid wages.
The wages were paid whether the workers worked well or badly. These farms proved very expensive and few were set up.
Kolkhozes, or Collective Farms, where workers kept plots of land for them selves and had to supply fixed amounts of food to the state at fixed prices.
The workers kept what was left for themselves. If there was nothing left they starved. 240,000 of these farms were set up by 1940.

Did Collectivisation work?The contrasting images of propaganda, such as the painting below, and the stark reality of photgraphs from the famine show the two sides to Collectivisation. In theory the productivity of Collectivisation was done to improve the quality of peoples lives and maximise the output that the Russian economy was capable of.
The idealistic image of Collectivisation with the harvest and community sharing everything.
The reality of Collectivisation in the Ukraine, the dead being collected after the disasterous famine.

Thereby releasing more people from the countryside to work in the towns, this in turn would lead to an increse in industrial output which would modernise the Soviet Union - but at what cost? The State would benefit, the Individual would suffer.

  • Stalin’s attempt to set up Sovkhozes failed; he had to fall back on Kolkhozes.
  • Most peasants could not use the machinery that was supplied. Many tractors did not work.
  • The Kulaks resisted and destroyed crops and animals. This led to a massive famine in 1932-34, in which 5,000,000 people died.
  • By 1937, when Collectivisation was almost complete, wheat production was up by a third on the 1928 figure.

Stalin leading the miners and workers, marching forward in unison to a better future - a man of the people with the happy faces and subtle red of communism behind them.

  • Stalin believed that Soviet industry and agriculture was one hundred years behind the West. He said that they must catch up in 10 years.
  • The Plans concentrated on coal, steel, oil, gas, engineering and chemicals.
  • Stalin distrusted the West. He knew that they had tried to intervene in the Russian Civil War and he suspected that they were supporting Hitler against him during the 1930s.
  • Stalin wanted to destroy the New Economic Policy, which Lenin had only intended to be temporary.
  • Stalin hated the Kulaks and wanted to destroy them. He thought that they were parasites.
  • Stalin wanted to increase his control over the Soviet Union. The Five Year Plans would enable him to do this.
  • In the First Five Year Plan Stalin called for an increase of 200% in heavy industry.

How did the Five Year Plans work?
  • Private trade and working for somebody else were both declared illegal.
  • A state planning agency was set up, GOSPLAN. It worked out targets for the production of all kind of goods. It was based in Moscow and employed 500,000 people.
  • Every factory throughout the Soviet Union was given targets for each of five years and for the total five years.
  • New industrial cities were constructed like Magnitogorsk and Chelyabinsk. These were built from scratch beyond the Ural Mountains.

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Find out more about Magnitogorsk by clicking on the image above

  • Many of the workers here were people arrested in the Purges, who worked as slave labour.
  • Young people from KOMSOMOL, the Young Communist League, volunteered to help. 250,000 were sent every summer to help create the new industrial cities.
  • Slave Labour was used. These were people who had been arrested in the Purges. Gulags, or Labour Camps, were set up in the north and in Siberia and the inmates were worked to death in appalling conditions.
  • ‘Stakhanovites’ were created, after Alexei Stakhanov the coal miner. He was credited with digging more than 100 tonnes of coal in a single shift and other miners were urged to follow his example.
  • This was simply a propaganda trick to get workers to work harder. However, his record was soon beaten by another miner who dug more than 300 tonnes.

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Soviet Propaganda about the Five Year Plans, showing different types of workers working together to achieve greatness for the state. These images often have people facing the right, as though they are travelling forward, subtly moving the country out of its very backward past.

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The success of the Five Year Plan can be seen to be crushing the Capitalists below. This Soviet Propaganda would suggest that the workers of the Communist world are more efficient that their Western counterparts.
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The 3rd Five Year Plan was designed to give the people the luxuries they had worked on for all these years, but as war with Germany loomed, it became necessary to switch production to war materials.

What went wrong?
  • Most targets were ridiculously high. They took no account of local conditions. The emphasis was on quantity not quality. 50% of tractors in the first Five Year Plan did not work.
  • Many peasants flocked into the cities in search of higher paid jobs in industry. They were uneducated and could not do the work. Much machinery broke down as a result.
  • Managers of factories tried to ‘cook the books’ rather than admit failure. No criticism of the Plans was accepted.
  • Despite all this, the Plans did increase industrial production by about 400% during the 1930s.
  • In 1940 the Soviet Union was the second industrial power in the world, only the USA produced more.

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Life in the Soviet Union
How did life change for the peoples of the Soviet Union?
  • On the face the results were impressive. Industrial production rose by about 400% in the 1930s.
  • Education and housing improved literacy increased rapidly.
  • Women were given equality for the first time. By 1940, 40% of workers were women. Crèches were set up in factories to allow women to work.
  • The number of doctors increased and medical treatment improved.

The real facts of life in the Soviet Union were very different.
  • The Five Year Plans increased production, but not quality. 50% of tractors broke down.
  • Managers of plants cheated in any way they could, because if they did not reach the target figures they might be shot.
  • A seven day week was introduced. Absence from work became a crime. Skilled workers were not allowed to leave their jobs.

The standard of living
  • As more people crowded into the cities to work in industry, living standards fell. Pay did not keep up with rises in prices.
  • After 1931 most people were paid by piecework, yet average income was probably about 50% of that in 1928.
  • There were often severe shortages, so queuing was a way of life. Fresh foods were often not available.
  • Most people ate meals in the communal canteens at their place of work rather than cook at home.
  • Housing was in short supply, because it was low on the Party’s priorities, and overcrowding common.
  • Most people lived in part of a flat sharing a kitchen and, if they were very lucky, a bathroom.
  • Luxury goods were just not available, or were only available in special shops for Party bureaucrats or managers.

The effects of Stalin’s control
  • Stalin used the secret police to force people to accept his changes.
  • Agricultural production suffered as Kulaks destroyed their crops and animals, rather than hand them over.
  • In 1932 to 1934 there was a massive famine which killed 5,000,000 people.
  • People who objected found themselves in slave labour camps, called Gulags. These were often in Siberia or in Northern Russia, where the weather in winter was very cold.
  • Here they worked with little food for ten years or more. Many died from exhaustion.
  • Altogether at least 7,000,000 people disappeared in the Purges, perhaps twice or even three times that number.

When trying to evaluate and summarise Stalin as a leader, we must consider that there are differing opinions and interpretations about him. In the years immediately folliowing his death in 1953, there was a backlash against his policies, known as de-Stalinisation in Russia. He was responsible for more deaths that Hitler, and yet we don't demonise him in the same way, why? The main reason is because the Soviets were on our side during the Second World War and therefore we needed him for us to be successful, also even though the human suffering would today be considered in violation of human rights, Russia and its satelitte states were reformed and modernised in an incredible way. The progress that Russia made from Tsarism until the outbreak of the Second World War enabled Stalin to defeat the Nazis. Had it not been for his advances and programmes, it is highly probable that the Nazis could have won the Second World War. On our next section on the Cold War, we pick up with the moment the Russians are drawn into the war. The USSR is invaded by the Nazis, and therefore Russia historians today do not refer to this war as we do, instead it is known as "the Great Patriotic War" (1941-1945).