The man known to history as Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on December 21, 1879 in Gori, Georgia, which was then part of the Russian Empire. His mother, Ekaterina Geladze, was of humble extraction, having been born into a serf family. His father, Vissarion Jughashvili, was a onetime serf who, when freed, became a self-employed cobbler but eventually went bankrupt and thereafter took a job in a shoe factory. An alcoholic who spent very little time with his family, Jughashvili was a morose and violent man who frequently beat his wife and young son. According to one of Joseph Stalin’s childhood friends, “Those undeserved and fearful beatings made the boy as hard and heartless as his father.” In 1888, when Stalin was nine, his father abandoned the family and went to live in the Georgian city of Tiflis, giving the family no further support.
The departure of Stalin’s father may have given the boy some psychic relief. After his father left, Stalin excelled academically and in 1894 graduated first in his class from the elementary clerical school in the city of Gori. That same year he was awarded a scholarship to the Tiflis Theological Seminary, a Russian Orthodox institution. He attended seminary not because of any aspirations of becoming a priest (as his mother hoped he would do), but because it was one of the few educational opportunities available in Georgia.
In seminary, Stalin joined a Georgian Social-Democratic organization and there began his devotion to Marxism and the socialist movement – an affiliation that resulted in his expulsion from the seminary in 1899. Over the ensuing decade, he worked with the political underground in the Caucusus (the region between the Black and Caspian Seas, comprising Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and parts of Russia); between 1902 and 1917 he was arrested and exiled to Siberia on several occasions. A devotee of Vladimir Lenin’s doctrine of a strong centralist party of professional revolutionaries, Stalin was appointed by Lenin (who was the head of the Soviet state) in 1912 to a seat on the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, a Marxist political entity that would rise to power in Russia’s October Revolution five years later. That same year, Lenin also placed Stalin on the editorial board of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, and in 1913 the young man formally renounced his given name and took the surname “Stalin,” which means “man of steel” in Russian.
In May 1917, Stalin was elected to the Politburo (the main policy-making and executive board) of the Central Committee (the highest body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, directing all Party and government activities), a position he would retain for the rest of his life. During the Russian Civil War (the 1918-1922 conflict in which the Communist Red Army defeated the anti-Communist White Army) and the Polish-Soviet War (1919-21), Stalin was an officer of the Red Army (so named in tribute to the blood shed by the working class in its struggle against capitalism). Between 1917 and 1923, Stalin also held posts as People’s Commissar of Nationalities Affairs, People’s Commissar of Workers and Peasants Inspection, Revolutionary Military Council member, and Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets member.
In April 1922 Stalin ascended to the position of General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party, a post that gave him control over all party appointments, promotions, and demotions. This enabled him to fill the ranks of the Party with his allies and thereby solidify an enormous power base. He appointed only loyal communists to leadership posts in local trade unions, cooperatives, and army units; all appointees reported directly to Stalin, who kept detailed files not only on them, but also on all party members and industrial managers.
In May 1922 Lenin was felled by the first of three debilitating strokes he would suffer before his death in January 1924. With Lenin ailing, Stalin began a bitter struggle for power against the most prominent and popular Bolshevik, Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army and Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic. Trotsky believed that Communism could not be achieved in an isolated and economically backward state like the USSR, and thought that only a European revolution in advanced industrial states could save the Soviet experiment. Stalin, by contrast, argued that socialism could be built in one country, and thus capitalized on the nationalist sentiment that would support such an idea.
After Lenin died in January 1924, Stalin joined forces with the Lev Kamenev (Lenin’s deputy and president of the Moscow Soviet ) and Grigory Zinoviev (head of the Communist International, or Comintern) to take control of the Party. Ideologically the three were “centrists” opposing the Party’s left wing led by Trotsky, and its right wing led by Bukharin. With the help of Bukharin, Stalin was able to secure a majority in the Politburo and the meetings of the Party Central Committee.
To win public support, Stalin initiated a propaganda campaign to portray himself as having been much closer to the now-deceased Lenin than he actually had been. Moreover, the Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev triumvirate prevented the publication of Lenin’s 1922 testament in which he had expressed serious misgivings about Stalin’s leadership abilities and greater confidence in Trotsky. This testament, which Lenin composed while struggling to recover from the effects of his first stroke, included the following sentiments:
“Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution. . . . Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite, and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.”
Stalin and his allies forced Trotsky to resign as Minister of War early in 1925. Thereafter Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev dissolved their political union, the latter two aligning themselves with Trotsky in 1926. When Zinoviev and Kamenev eventually began to realize the danger that Stalin represented, Stalin had them expelled from the Central Committee – on grounds that they were fomenting Party disunity, which would make the USSR vulnerable to attack by the West. Next he had Trotsky expelled from the Politburo, and in December 1927 exiled him to Alma-Ata in Soviet Central Asia. In 1929 Trotsky was banished from the Soviet Union altogether and in 1940 Stalin had him murdered.
Stalin had become (in 1929) the supreme leader of the USSR.
As of 1922, Russia was the poorest nation in Europe. As many writers have shown, Marxist revolutions are driven more than anything else by hatred of the perceived “class enemy.” Chief among those identified as “enemies of the people” by Stalin were landowning peasants or kulaks. Professionals such as managers and bourgeois engineers were also targets, and in 1928 the government fired thousands of them from their jobs; deprived them of ration cards; denied them the right to receive medical care; and drove many of them out of their homes.
The following year brought more of the same, as thousands of civil servants were purged on charges of “right-wing deviations,” “sabotage,” or “membership in a socially alien class.” Acting on direct orders from Stalin, the State Political Directorate, a secret police known by the acronym GPU, fabricated false dossiers demonstrating the supposed existence of a “Peasant Workers’ Party” that allegedly served as an umbrella for a network of anti-Soviet groups conspiring to overthrow Stalin and the Soviet regime. By 1930 the GPU had developed an elaborate system of concocting evidence to implicate as “terrorists” any opponents of Stalin’s authority. The years 1928-1931 saw some 138,000 civil servants stripped of their jobs and civil rights – 23,000 of them on charges that they were “enemies of Soviet power.” Tens of thousands of engineers, agronomists, technicians, and administrators met a similar fate.
Beginning in early 1930, the Stalin regime also initiated a campaign to rid the country of “all entrepreneurs” – mostly self-employed shopkeepers and craftsmen of only moderate means who operated small, one-person businesses. These were by no means wealthy people; 98 percent had no employees all. As “capitalists,” however, they were regarded as “socially undesirable elements” and were punished, as were clerics, by a tax hike of one thousand percent as well as the confiscation of their business inventory.
Over time, these repressive measures cast their shadow over an ever-growing number of people. A December 1930 decree designated more than thirty different categories of citizens to be deprived of their civil rights, housing rights, access to health care, and ration cards. Among these were “ex-landowners,” “ex-shopkeepers,” “ex-nobles,” ex-policemen,” “ex-tsarist civil servants,” “ex-kulaks,” “ex-employees or owners of private companies,” ex-White [Army] officers, “ex-members of political parties,” and ex-clergy. These drastic measures against so many groups resulted in a nation overrun with homeless, unemployed vagabonds.
The aforementioned groups were the chief scapegoats who Stalin blamed for the fiscal misery of the nation. To address the problems of hunger and poverty, in 1928 Stalin initiated the first of five “Five-Year Plans” that he would implement during his long reign as the leader of the USSR (the others would cover the periods 1933-37; 1938-42; 1946-50; and 1951-55). This first Plan nationalized all aspects of Russian industry and commerce, with the goal of quickly industrializing the economy and collectivizing agriculture. Collectivization meant the confiscation of all private land and the organization of agricultural production by state-run “collective farms.” The idea that drove this program was Marx’s fantasy of social equality and social justice. In practice it meant that 25 million peasant farmers would not be paid any wages for their labor, but would instead produce their agricultural output entirely for the state, which would in turn allow them to keep a modest share for their own survival needs. Stalin’s vision entailed the systematic replacement of small, unmechanized farms with large, mechanized alternatives that would theoretically produce food much more efficiently. In practice this meant that a nation which had once been Europe’s breadbasket would experience famine and chronic agricultural scarcity for the next sixty years, until the system collapsed.
To make the mechanized farms possible, Stalin’s Five-Year Plan ordered increases of 111 percent in coal production, 200 percent in iron production, and 335 percent in electric power. Stalin justified his demands by claiming that they were necessary to ensure Russia’s very survival against an inevitable invasion by Western capitalist countries. Because the mandated production hikes were so enormous, however, they were rarely achieved. Further complicating matters was the fact that the great pressure for increased productivity resulted in a steep increase in work-related accidents, shoddy work, and physical and technological breakdowns.
Just as he demanded greater productivity from the aforementioned industries, Stalin also required the collectivized farms of the USSR to meet ever-increasing production quotas. He placed strict limits on the consumption of Soviet citizens so as to ensure that capital would be reinvested into industry. In Stalin’s mind, the crucial mission of industrializing the Soviet Union justified any and every means, no matter how many lives were squandered or extinguished in the process. As he once explained, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Always attributing his brutalities to an unseen enemy, in 1931 an impatient Stalin said, “We are 50 to 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must cover this distance in 10 years. Either we do this or they will crush us.”
As the collectivization progressed, agricultural production declined. This was due not only to the factors discussed two paragraphs above, but also to the fact that there was widespread public resistance to collectivization. Many farmers hid part of their harvest for the consumption of their own families. Millions preferred to slaughter their animals for food rather than give them over to Stalin’s collective farms. This trend led to a precipitous decline in the number of livestock in the Soviet Union. In Kazakhstan, for instance, the cattle population dwindled from 7 million to 1.6 million, while the number of sheep declined from 22 million to just 1.7 million. In the Soviet dependency of Mongolia, Stalin’s collectivization policies led to the loss of 8 million head of livestock. This mass slaughter of the nation’s farm animals contributed to a profound economic crisis throughout the USSR. Moreover, many peasant farmers voiced their anti-collectivization sentiments in the form of violent demonstrations. In 1930 alone, some 14,000 peasant riots broke out in various regions of the country.
The peasant farmers were utterly demoralized by Stalin’s decree for collectivization. By 1932, more than 12 million of them had flooded Russian cities, hoping to flee the oppressive realities of collectivization and “dekulakization.” Their influx into the cities threatened to destabilize the rationing system that Stalin instituted in 1929. The number of people holding ration cards grew from 26 million in 1929 to nearly 40 million in 1932.
As a Marxist, Stalin would not consider, even for a moment, that the socialization of agriculture was itself responsible for the decreased productivity of Russian farms and factories. Instead he identified the class enemy as the culprit, and increased the purges of those accused of trying to “sabotage” his socialist plans. In particular, he condemned the kulaks and “kulak helpers,” mass numbers of whom he ordered his henchmen to execute, sentence to slave labor camps in Siberia, or otherwise deport to remote regions of the country. It was the camps that Stalin created for this purpose – the infamous Gulag archipelago (which is discussed later in this essay) – that inspired Hitler to create concentration camps for the Jews.
Wherever Stalin looked, he believed that he saw adversaries plotting against him. In 1930-1931, for instance, he had nearly half of all engineers in the Donbass region either dismissed or arrested, and his agents claimed to have “unmasked” 4,500 “specialist saboteurs” in the transport sector alone between January and June of 1931.
To intimidate any additional would-be “saboteurs,” of whose existence Stalin was becoming increasingly paranoid, a number of show trials were held in late 1930 through early 1931, where defendants “confessed” (often on pain of actual or threatened torture) to having worked for foreign embassies to establish a vast network of specialists dedicated to the common goal of crippling the socialist economy. These trials helped lend an air of legitimacy to the myth of sabotage, which, along with the myth of omnipresent conspiracy, became the hallmark of Stalin’s worldview and the driving motivation behind his ever-increasing barbarity.
Collectivization had its most cataclysmic effects in Ukraine, where, in 1932-1933, Stalin turned famine into a tool of genocide. Identifying the Ukrainian peasantry as an enemy of the revolution, he sent the Red Army to Ukraine to confiscate the peasants’ land and intentionally created a famine throughout the ethnic-Ukrainian region of northern Caucasus and the lower Volga River. This resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10 million people, or as many people as died on all sides in World War I. Stalin’s purpose in engineering this calamity was to break the resistance of Ukrainian farmers and peasants to the confiscation of their property and force them to accept socialism. The method used was to drastically increase the grain procurement quota for Ukraine and stipulate that Ukrainian peasants could keep no grain at all for themselves until their quotas had been met. In regions where the land was more fertile, the state demanded an even larger share of the harvests. Unable to meet the huge quotas, peasants desperately tried to hide some of their grain in order to feed themselves and their families. But Communist Party officials, soldiers, and secret police units were mobilized to locate perpetrators of such deceit and take away all their stashed grain reserves. Thus Stalin’s henchmen collected, stored, and guarded every ounce of Ukrainian grain while millions of Ukrainians starved to death around them.
Under the campaign “to bring socialism to the countryside,” the more the people suffered, the more laws were created to limit their options for finding relief, thereby sealing their lamentable fates. In August 1932, for instance, the “ear law” went into effect – mandating execution or ten years in a labor camp as punishment for any “theft or damage of socialist property.” Into this category fell a host of transgressions, including acts so minor as stealing a few ears of corn – hence the law’s name. Between August 1932 and December 1933, some 125,000 people were sentenced under this law; approximately 5,400 of them were executed.
None of these draconian measures resulted in an adequate grain harvest. As of mid-October 1932, the chief grain-producing areas of the country had produced less than one-fifth of the target amount stipulated by the government. In characteristic fashion, Stalin blamed the “enemies of the people” rather than his own bankrupt socialist plan. In November of that year, the Party district secretaries for the Northern Caucasus region adopted a joint resolution that read: “Following the particularly shameful failure of the grain collection plan, all local Party organizations are to be obliged to break up the sabotage networks of kulaks and counterrevolutionaries, and to crush the resistance of the rural Communists and kolkhoz [collective farm] presidents who have taken the lead in this sabotage.”
In those districts which the government targeted as nests of resistance, all trade was banned; all products were removed from store shelves; immediate repayment required on all government loans; taxes were raised to extraordinarily high levels; and there were mass arrests of “saboteurs,” “foreign elements,” and “counterrevolutionaries.” Local Party administrations were purged, and workers and managers accused of “minimizing production” were arrested en masse. The prisons were, in the words of one eyewitness, “full to the bursting point,” often holding five times as many people as they were designed to accommodate.
Another punishment of choice in locales where widespread sabotage was suspected was mass deportation of the population to slave labor camps. December 1932 marked the beginning of mass deportations of entire villages. Records show that in 1932, some 71,236 “specially displaced” deportees were sent to such camps. The next year, this number climbed to 268,091.
The paranoid nature of the Stalin regime, which saw “class enemies” sabotaging it at every turn, is reflected in the following report penned in the early 1930s by the Italian consul in Novorrossiisk: “The enemy is everywhere and must be fought on innumerable fronts in tiny operations: here a field needs hoeing, there a few hundredweight of corn are stashed; a tractor is broken here, another sabotaged there; a third has gone astray. . . . A depot has been raided, the books have been cooked, the directors of the kolkhozy, through incompetence or dishonesty, never tell the truth about the harvest . . . and so on, infinitely, everywhere in this enormous country. . . . The enemy is in every house, in village after village.”
In November 1932 the Politburo ordered all collective farms that had fallen short of their government-mandated production quotas raided and emptied of every last ounce of grain they contained. When farmers told the inspectors that they were not hiding any grain from the government, they were often tortured until they confessed. Among the common methods of torture were the following: (a) the workers were stripped bare and exposed to freezing temperatures; sometimes they were stretched out and scalded on white-hot stoves before being placed in the cold; (b) the workers’ feet and clothes were doused with gasoline and set ablaze; the flames were then snuffed out and this procedure was repeated until they revealed where their hidden grain was stored; (c) the workers were lined up against a wall for simulated executions.
Forced by such brutal measures to hand over to the government their meager grain reserves, millions of destitute peasants from the rich agricultural regions of Russia headed for the cities, as noted earlier. But Stalin eventually took steps to combat, as he put it, “kulak infiltration of the towns,” and to “liquidate social parasitism.” In December 1932, he and Soviet Prime Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed an order banning “by all means necessary . . . the large-scale departure of peasants from Ukraine and the northern Caucusus for the towns.” They announced that every citizen would thenceforth have to register and carry, at all times, newly assigned identity papers. To justify these measures, the December order read: “The Central Committee and the government are in possession of definite proof that this massive exodus of the peasants has been organized by the enemies of the Soviet regime, by counterrevolutionaries, and by Polish agents as a propaganda coup against the process of collectivization in particular and the Soviet government in general.” Stalin also suspended the sale of railway tickets in regions affected by the famine. His aim was to trap people inside the hunger zones, with no chance of escape, and let them slowly starve to death.
A system that required passports for anyone wishing to move about the country was instituted. Between December 1932 and December 1933, some 27 million adults received passports. This program enabled authorities to readily identify those “undesirables” whose rights had been taken away (such as clergy, civil servants, engineers, agronomists, technicians, administrators, “ex-landowners,” “ex-shopkeepers,” “ex-nobles,” ex-policemen,” “ex-kulaks,” “ex-employees or owners of private companies,” ex-White [Army] officers, and “ex-members of political parties”) and to banish them from the cities. Hundreds of thousands of such people were refused passports and were forced to vacate their homes within ten days. Prohibited from residing in any city anywhere in the Soviet Union, they were thus forced to carve out dwelling places where they could in the countryside. During the first two months of this operation, the population of Moscow fell by 60,000. In Leningrad, 54,000 people vanished in a single month.
In addition, police raids and spot checks for identity papers resulted in the arrest, imprisonment, and exile of hundreds of thousands. People could be arrested and deported simply for walking to the corner store to buy cigarettes without their papers.
One of the regions affected most severely by the famine was the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. An Italian consul stationed there described in horrific detail the culture of death that arose in that city: “Along with the peasants who flock to the towns because there is no hope of survival in the countryside, there are also children who are simply brought here and abandoned by their parents, who then return to their village to die. Their hope is that someone in the town will be able to look after their children. . . . [D]vorniki, attendants in white uniforms, . . . collect the children and take them to the nearest police station. . . . Around midnight they are all transported in trucks to the freight station. . . . That’s where all the children who are found in stations and on trains, the peasant families, the old people, and all the peasants who have been picked up during the day are gathered together . . . A medical team does a sort of selection process…Anyone who is not yet swollen up and still has a chance of survival is directed to [a specified area]. People who are already starting to swell up are moved out on goods trains and abandoned about forty miles out of town so that they can die out of sight. When they arrive at the destination, huge ditches are dug, and the dead are carried out of the wagons.”
The famine engineered by Stalin caused artificially induced death in peacetime on a scale unsurpassed in the recorded history of mankind. Mortality rates reached their apex in the summer of 1933, when the effects of the famine were compounded by deadly outbreaks of typhus. It was common for towns with populations of several thousand to be reduced to a mere two-dozen survivors or fewer. Many starving wretches resorted to cannibalism in desperate attempts to delay their inevitable demise for just another day or even a few hours. One eyewitness observer in Kharkiv wrote: “Every night the bodies of more than 250 people who have died from hunger or typhus are collected. Many of these bodies have had the liver removed, through a large slit in the abdomen. The police finally picked up some of these mysterious ‘amputators’ who confessed that they were using the meat as a filling for the meat pies that they were selling in the market.”
The famine affected 40 million people, including those who died from it and those who suffered through it but survived. It extended throughout all of Ukraine, part of the Black Earth territories, much of Kazakhstan, and the plains of the Don, the Kuban, and the northern Caucusus. In 1933 alone, 6 million people died of famine-related causes; 4 million of these were Ukrainian peasants. The famine likely caused another million deaths in Kazakhstan, and a million more in the northern Caucusus and Black Earth. It is notable that the areas that had resisted collectivization most vigorously in 1929-1930 were, for the most part, the areas that suffered the worst effects of the famine. For example (as noted earlier), some 14,000 riots and peasant revolts protesting collectivization had taken place in 1930; more than 85 percent of these occurred in regions that were hardest hit by the famine of 1932-33. In general, the areas that were the richest agriculturally suffered most from the famine – quite simply because it was not a natural disaster but rather a calamity carefully engineered by Stalin himself.
Because the famine was official state policy, the Soviet government was entirely indifferent to the plight of the dying masses. In 1933, for example, when thousands were succumbing to starvation each day, the Soviet government continued to export huge quantities of grain abroad “in the interests of industrialization” – taking the official position that all was well in the USSR. When foreign dignitaries visited the country, the GPU led them exclusively to areas where the appalling stench of death did not fill the air, and where all signs of the human misery that permeated the land had been hidden from view.
Apart from those who were deceived, there were also many willing accomplices – particularly in the press – who were willing to ignore, or even to falsify their accounts of, the horrors they saw firsthand throughout Stalin’s empire. Most notable was Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent in the 1930s, who concealed his knowledge of the great famine and Stalin’s mass murders. In 1933, for instance, when the famine was at its height, Duranty wrote that “village markets [were] flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk and butter. . . . A child can see this is not famine but abundance.” Duranty’s various dispatches during this period included also the following: “There is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be” (New York Times, Nov. 15, 1931); “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda” (New York Times, August 23, 1933); “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition” (New York Times, March 31, 1933).
Duranty’s reports were not founded in ignorance; he knew very well that they were utterly false. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.
The great famine had an enormous effect on Soviet society and the character of the Soviet people. It fostered a proliferation of tyrants and local despots who, eager to please their superiors and ultimately Stalin himself, were prepared to resort to any measures to strip the starving peasants of every last morsel of food. It also led to the desperate abandonment of countless children and the rise of cannibalism. Coupled with these developments were the establishment of death camps and the unpredictable atrocities of Stalin’s secret police. Barbarism and corruption became the defining characteristics of Soviet life. But Stalin and his henchmen cast a positive light upon this period, viewing its horrors as essential building blocks for an indomitable national character. As Politburo member Sergo Ordzhonikidze remarked in January 1934, “Our [party] members who saw the situation of 1932-33 and who stood up to it are now tempered like steel. I think with people like that, we can build a state such as history has never seen.”
In a famous statement, Stalin claimed that the closer the country came to achieving communism, the more intense the resistance by the revolution’s enemies would be. In order to forge the “new socialist society,” he ruthlessly enforced the repression of “socially alien elements,” and then enemies within the revolution itself.
The elements alien to the socialist cause were “bourgeois specialists,” “aristocrats,” clergy, members of liberal professions, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, and craftsmen. Members of each of these groups were stigmatized, deprived of their civil rights, stripped of their jobs and homes, and in many cases exiled. Among the most common charges brought against them was “sabotage,” a term used to designate the acts of anyone who demonstrated even the barest hint of indifference to, or uncertainty about, the aims of the Party. The refusal of the state to tolerate even indifference to its aims gave rise to a new term — “totalitarianism” — to describe a regime whose efforts to control its population reached far beyond the repressive measures of even the most despotic tyrannies and dictatorships of the past. Stalin gave voice to this repressive mentality when he stated, “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”
In 1933 large numbers of city dwellers were rounded up and sent, like military regiments, to the countryside to work the fields. As the Italian consul in Kharkiv wrote in July 1933: “The enforced conscription of people from the city is assuming enormous proportions. This week alone, at least 20,000 people are being sent out to the countryside every day.” The rural peasants often reacted angrily to arrival of the “conscripts” and set fire to their living quarters.
By the spring of 1934, the famine, the targeted persecutions, the forced population relocations, and the resultant social breakdown had combined to give rise to a large population of vagabonds and juvenile delinquents. In an effort to crack down on them, the Politburo issued an April 1935 decree for “bringing to justice, and punishing with the full force of the law [including the death penalty], any adolescent older than 12 years who is convicted of burglary, acts of violence, grievous bodily harm, mutilation, or murder.” The government also established a network of “work colonies” for minors.
But for much of 1934, Stalin’s war against his own people abated somewhat as the secret police were reorganized and the GPU became a department of the new People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs — Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennikh del, or NKVD. But December 1, 1934 marked a watershed moment in the sudden resumption of state-induced terror throughout Russia. In what came to be known as the “Law of 1 December,” Stalin decreed that suspected lawbreakers, upon their arrest, had to be questioned by authorities within ten days; that they could be tried without an attorney representing them; and that they could be executed immediately if convicted, with no opportunity to appeal.
The incident that ushered in this epoch of renewed repression was the murder of Politburo member Sergei Kirov, whose political independence and outspokenness did not mesh well with Stalin’s growing awareness that opposition to his brutal policies was on the rise throughout the USSR. Stain also feared Kirov’s popularity with the party rank and file and had him murdered by a young assassin named Leonid Nikolaev. But Stalin gave no indication that he had either planned or approved of this killing. He feigned outrage and used Kirov’s death as a pretext for introducing repressive new laws to punish political crimes and ushering in a purge of suspected enemies. Over the next four-and-a-half years (which would become known as the period of the Great Terror), Stalin had millions of innocent party members and others arrested — many of them for their role in the alleged Kirov conspiracy. Among those executed for their presumed roles in Kirov’s slaying were Stalin’s former allies Zinoviev and Kamenev. They were accused of having formed a terrorist organization plotting to kill Stalin, and both were executed on the same day, August 25, 1936.
In the weeks pursuant to the passage of the “Law of 1 December” (1934), the indiscriminate accusation of suspects became customary; new procedures were put in place for prosecuting suspected “terrorists,” and many of Stalin’s opponents within the Communist Party were accused of the “odious crime” of belonging to a secret terrorist network allegedly directed from its “Center in Leningrad.” All suspects were swiftly tried, convicted, and immediately executed. Between December 1934 and February 1935, some 6,500 people were sentenced for the crime of terrorism.
Soon, anyone who had ever voiced opposition to Stalin on any matter became a suspect. According to the Central Committee, there was a plot underway by various “anti-Party groups” to usurp Stalin’s power. In May 1935 the dictator ordered that the Party membership card of every Communist be carefully checked, and the NKVD supplied files on those “suspicious Communists” who merited closer scrutiny. As a result of this campaign, fully 9 percent of all Party members, or 250,000 people, were expelled from the Party. There were mass deportations of those identified as “anti-Soviet” families and “doubtful elements.” The spring of 1936 saw the deportation of 15,000 families (50,000 people) to collective farms in Kazakhstan. Between August 1937 and November 1938, hundreds of thousands were arrested in anti-espionage operations.
The heightened repression of this period was reflected in the astronomical numbers of sentences handed down by the NKVD: 267,000 in 1935, and 274,000 in 1936. Stalin’s characteristic paranoia was in full swing; between January and June 1936, more than 14,000 industrial managers were arrested for the crime of “sabotage.” The obsession with “saboteurs” continued to escalate and became the most distinguishing feature of Stalin’s regime. In July 1937 the Politburo decreed that “all kulaks and criminals must be immediately arrested . . . and after trial before a troika (a panel of three judges) the most hostile are to be shot, and the less active but still hostile elements deported.” In a single 1937 operation, more than 259,000 people were arrested and nearly 73,000 were shot.
In addition to kulaks, ex-kulaks, and “criminal elements,” targets of the repression also included “socially dangerous elements,” “members of anti-Soviet parties,” “former Czarist civil servants,” and “white Guards.” These designations had no precise or definite meanings but could be applied freely and interchangeably to almost any suspect. Categories of political enemies were arbitrarily invented. If the number of arrests “warranted” by these “crimes” failed to meet the quotas prescribed by the government, then it was customary to also arrest the family members of the principal “suspects.” According to Soviet nuclear physicist and academician Andrei Sakharov, more than 1.2 million Party members (a total representing more than half the Party) were arrested between 1936 and 1939; of these, at least 600,000 were killed through torture, execution, and confinement in the concentration camps called “Gulags.”
Between August and December of 1937, Stalin launched at least ten operations to liquidate groups of suspected spies or “subversives” – one nationality at a time. Among these were Germans, Poles, Japanese, Romanians, Finns, Lithuanians, Latvians, Greeks, and Turks. Anyone who had ever held any contact or correspondence, however casual or infrequent, with people in foreign lands was now considered a security threat. People living in the frontier zones were particularly vulnerable to this charge, simply by virtue of their proximity to outside influences. Anyone who showed even the slightest interest in the happenings or cultures of other nations was suspect; as a result, owning a radio transmitter, collecting stamps, or speaking the Esperanto language were all grounds for questioning and possible arrest.
The terror of 1936-1939 also vigorously targeted intellectuals, who had been recognized as a distinct Russian subgroup since the mid-1800s, and who had historically been the voice of resistance against tyranny and intellectual constraint. Anyone who might have knowledge of the outside world – of ideas, values, and ways of life contrary to those promoted by Stalin – was considered a potential threat. More than 70 percent of the victims of the purges during this period had attended college. To demonize any intellectuals who might be predisposed to oppose the regime, Stalin initiated a media campaign condemning “deviationism” in economics, history, and literature. But in the final analysis, scholars in all fields of study were equally vulnerable; even those disciplines with no connection to politics, ideology, military matters, or economics felt the crushing weight of Stalin’s repression. Astronomers, statisticians, linguists, biologists, and scientists of all stripes were targeted. College faculties were decimated, as exemplified by the case of the University at Byelorussia, where 87 of 105 academics were arrested on suspicion of being “Polish spies.” Similarly, 27 of the 29 astronomers at Pulkovo observatory were arrested. Stalin’s repression also sent thousands of writers, publishers, journalists, and theater directors to prisons, labor camps, or executioners – simply for holding the “wrong” political or philosophical views.
In this latest wave of terror, Soviet authorities sought to finally achieve the “complete liquidation” of the clergy – a mission they had begun in the late 1920s. Thousands of priests and nearly all bishops were sent to forced labor camps, but most were simply executed. Of the nearly 21,000 churches and mosques that were active in 1936, fewer than 1,000 would still be functioning as of early 1941. The number of officially registered clerics nationwide declined from over 24,000 in 1936 to a mere 5,665 in early 1941.
Stalin also conducted a massive purge of the Red Army – resulting in the execution, imprisonment, or dismissal of 35,020 officers; of the 706 highest-ranking officers, about half were similarly eliminated. The Army purge also cut loose 3 of its 5 marshals, 13 of its 15 army generals, 8 of its 9 admirals, 50 of its 57 army corps generals, 154 of its 186 division generals, all 16 of its army commissars, and 25 of its 28 army corps commissars. The defendants underwent brutal interrogation procedures and were often forced into making confessions.
Moreover, Stalin purged his Party cadres to an astonishing degree. He eliminated 98 of the 139 members of the Central Committee; 1,108 of the 1,996 delegates to the Seventeenth Party Congress; and 2,210 of 2,750 district secretaries. In addition, he ordered the nearly total re-staffing of the local and regional headquarters of the Party and Komsomol (Communist Youth Party). Of the 200 members of the Central Committee of the Ukraine Communist Party, only 3 survived. The same grisly scenario was repeated at all local and regional Party headquarters. Defendants had no chance of acquittal because their testimony was not believed and was distorted beyond recognition in the official records. Transcribers placed anti-Stalin quotes into the defendants’ mouths and cited the purportedly damning testimony of non-existent witnesses. Almost invariably, this process resulted in the conviction and sentencing of the defendants. Forced confessions were common.
As the victims of Stalin’s purges grew exponentially in number, the dictator tried to conceal his mass executions by removing from public awareness all traces of those who he had eliminated via exile or murder. For instance, his propagandists used airbrushing and cutting-and-pasting techniques to remove from the visual record those he had sentenced to death or the Gulags. Whenever Stalin had a former colleague executed, photographs showing that individual attending past May Day parades were redone to change or eliminate their appearance, thereby masking the fact that the person was no longer alive. Stalin further ordered that the names of those he had arrested or executed could no longer be spoken, and that their photographs could never again be displayed anywhere. Not even family photo albums were safe; people were required, on pain of arrest or exile, to cut out and destroy the images of their departed loved ones, thereby losing their final, tenuous links to the people nearest to their hearts.
In November 1937 Stalin signed an order for the “purge” of the Polish Communist Party – accusing all factions of that Party of “following the orders of counterrevolutionary Polish secret services.” “Polish fascist agents have infiltrated the Party and taken up all key positions,” the order explained. By the end of 1938 the Party had been completely liquidated. Stalin chose new leaders to run the organization, as he did for all purged groups. He usually chose from a rival faction of the liquidated entity.
The orders for all of these operations were handed down personally by Stalin and his closest political allies, and were carried out by local authorities. Without even a cursory knowledge of how many people in a given region might be “guilty” of the “crimes” the government was punishing, Stalin set quotas for how many sentences and executions should be carried out in each district. These quotas, high to begin with, often served only as springboards to even greater excesses by the local authorities; fearful of being perceived as too lax, and eager to please their superiors in the central government, these locals commonly went far beyond the “call of duty” in convicting and executing alleged subversives. For example, the government’s quotas (for the period August 1937 through September 1938) for Turkmenistan – a republic of 1.3 million people – called for 6,227 sentences and 3,225 executions. But the zealous local authorities of Turkmenistan carried out 13,259 sentences and 4,037 executions.
During 1937-1938, the NKVD arrested 1.575 million people. Of these, 1.345 million (or 85.4 percent) received some sentence, and 681,692 (or 51 percent) were executed. This was an average of more than 20,000 executions monthly. As the Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn remarked, the Spanish Inquisition at its height executed 10 heretics per month, and the Czarist regime that Lenin had overthrown executed, in its worst excesses after the Revolution of 1905, about 45 people per month.
The trials of Stalin’s suspects were scarcely more than charades. The troika judges at regional levels were primarily concerned with meeting the sentencing quotas set in advance by the Stalin government; thus trials were, for the most part, brief affairs of largely predetermined outcomes. In many cases the defendants were not even present; their trials consisted solely of the troika reading their files. A troika would commonly review hundreds of files per day, meaning that the judicial system provided most prisoners with only a few minutes – if not seconds – to have their cases considered. For death sentences, no appeals were permitted and the executions were usually carried out within a few days.
Beginning in the years immediately preceding World War II, and continuing until the period just after the conflict’s end, Stalin deported more than 1.5 million people – one ethnic group at a time – to Siberia and Central Asia – on the stated grounds that they advocated resistance to Soviet rule. The groups affected were: Poles, Koreans, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, Meskhetian Turks, Finns, Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians.
In the final analysis, a principal objective of the Great Terror was to establish a civil and military bureaucracy composed of young cadres raised to blindly, unquestioningly, and zealously follow Stalin’s orders. A second goal was to eliminate all “socially dangerous elements” – a category of people whose numbers were constantly growing. According to Stalin, the USSR was surrounded by hostile enemies on every side, foes who were allegedly sending “armies of spies and subversives” to sabotage his socialist project. Compounding this threat, he explained, were the secretive operations of a “Fifth Column” seeking to destabilize Russia from within – by means of sabotage, espionage, and terrorism. To combat these omnipresent mythical foes, Stalin turned his nation into a stage for a tyrannical repression the likes of which had never before been seen in human history. Between 1936 and 1938 alone, his Great Terror was responsible for the murder of nearly 700,000 people.
Among the measures for which Stalin is best remembered was his widespread use of slave labor camps, or Gulags. (“Gulag” is an acronym for “Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagere,” which is Russian for “Main Camp Administration.”) These camps swelled both in size and number throughout the 1930s, providing Stalin with the manpower he needed for his massive construction projects in various regions of the USSR. Whereas in 1929 there had been approximately 55,000 prisoners in these Gulags, by 1935 their number stood at 965,000 (725,000 in work camps and 240,000 in work colonies). For the most part, each camp specialized in putting its slaves to work on one particular task, such as: cutting wood, building railroads, constructing roads and bridges, mining coal or gold, extracting petroleum, carrying out agricultural projects, or digging canals. In 1935 one railroad construction project enlisted the toil of 150,000 prisoners organized into thirty divisions; in 1939, some 138,000 prisoners extracted fully 35 percent of all the Soviet gold produced that year.
In the second half of the 1930s, the Gulag population doubled, from 965,000 in early 1935 to 1.93 million in early 1941. (In addition to these, the NKVD was in charge of 1.2 million “specially displaced people,” and Soviet prisons, which were built to hold a theoretical limit of 234,000 inmates, were packed with 462,000.) With each passing year, increasing numbers of prisoners were sent to the camps so as to meet the ever-greater production targets set by the NKVD. By no means was everyone being held in the Gulags a political prisoner; such prisoners constituted between one-fourth and one-third of all the inmates. Most had been sentenced for crimes created by the Party: “destruction of Soviet property”; “breaking the passport law”; “hooliganism”; speculation”; “leaving one’s work post”; “sabotage”; “nonfulfillment of the minimum number of working days.” Most were ordinary citizens who were victims of the Stalin regime’s harsh laws, myriad regulations, and insatiable lust for slave labor.
From 1934-1941, some 7 million people entered the Gulag camps and colonies. At least 300,000 are known to have died in the camps from 1934-40. It is likely that at least another 100,000 perished between 1930-33, though the mortality figures from that period are not as precise. In addition to these multitudes, many others died sometime between their arrest and their scheduled registration as prisoners in a camp. Also, contrary to popular misconception, there was a considerable turnover of inmates in the Gulags. Somewhere between 20 and 35 percent of the prisoners were released each year, though often to house arrest or exile rather than to genuine freedom. Most sentences were not intended to persist for excessively long periods of time. In 1940, for example, 57 percent of all sentences were for 5 years or less. But prisoners could never fully rest assured that they knew for certain when they would be released, as sentences were often extended without explanation or justification.
After the start of the Second Warld War, the already abominable conditions in the Gulags deteriorated markedly, as camps commonly did not receive any supplies for weeks at a time. In the winter of 1942-43, approximately one-fourth af all Gulag prisoners died from starvation. Over the entire course of the war, at least 2 million perished in the camps. All told, the death toll in the Gulags was about 2.7 million.
On August 23, 1939, Stalin and German dictator Adolf Hitler signed (on Hitler’s initiative) a nonaggression pact stating that each country pledged not only to refrain from attacking the other for a period of at least ten years, but also that neither would come to the aid of any nation that the other might invade. So momentous was this pact, and so dramatically did it shift Europe’s balance of power, that Time Magazine named Stalin its “Man of the Year” for 1939, for having signed what Time called this “world-shattering” agreement. “Without the Russian pact,” said Time, “German generals would certainly have been loath to go into military action. With it, World War II began.”
In exchange for signing this agreement, Germany gave the USSR the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), and divided Poland into German and Soviet spheres of influence. When Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, the Soviets did nothing. Two days later, Britain declared war on Germany and World War II had begun. On September 17, Stalin dispatched Soviet tanks into eastern Poland to occupy the USSR’s “share” of that nation. The following month, the Soviets occupied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and in November declared war against Finland.
Upon entering Poland, the Soviets arrested en masse all Polish soldiers and citizens deemed likely to resist the annexation of their country; by 1945, some two million Poles would be imprisoned or deported to the Gulags. All told, the Soviets executed more than 20,000 Polish military officers, soldiers, border guards, police officers, and other officials.
Meanwhile, Stalin assisted the German war effort by supplying the Nazis with such vital resources as oil, wood, copper, manganese ore, rubber, and grain. On March 8, 1940 the USSR’s war with Finland came to an end, with Finland losing some territory but retaining its independence. Three months later, the Soviets occupied part of Romania. Then in April 1941, Stalin approved the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact guaranteeing that Japan would not attack the USSR.
Stalin’s purges of the Communist Party elite, coupled with his decimation of the officer corps of the Red Army, emboldened Hitler to blatantly violate the terms of the nonaggression pact he had signed with Stalin in 1939. On June 22, 1941, Hitler shocked Stalin by invading the USSR in blatant violation of the 1939 pact. The shaken Soviet leader appointed himself Commissar of Defense and Supreme Commander of the Soviet Armed Forces; his struggle against Germany would come to be known as the “Great Patriotic War.” On July 3, 1941, Stalin delivered a radio address to his countrymen, announcing that he planned to pursue a “scorched earth” policy dsigned to prevent the Germans from obtaining “a single engine, or a single railway truck, and not a pound of bread nor a pint of oil.” “Comrades, citizens, brothers, and sisters, fighters of our army and navy,” he said. “We must immediately put our whole production to war footing. In all occupied territories partisan units must be formed.”
The Germans initially made swift progress but then were repelled by a Russian counterattack near Moscow on December 6, 1941. Stalin directed the Soviet campaign from the Kremlin, ordering his warriors to fight under the slogan “Die, But Do Not Retreat.” Meanwhile in the north, German forces reached Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in August 1941, surrounded the city on September 8, and initiated a 900-day siege that would lead to the deaths of nearly 1.5 million civilians and soldiers. In an effort to encourage military assistance from the Western Allies, the pragmatic Stalin released some 115,000 of the Poles he had incarcerated after the 1939 annexation.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese airforce carried out a devastating attack against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, thereby drawing the U.S. into the conflict. Four days later, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States.
In May 1942 a British-Soviet accord was agreed upon, thereby fulfulling British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s wish for a “grand alliance” between his country, the Soviet Union, and the United States. For the second time in four years, Time Magazine named Stalin its “Man of the Year” – this time for stopping the German army in its tracks and, by joining forces with the U.S. and Britain, increasing the chances for an Allied victory in Europe.
The winter of 1942-43 marked the military turning point of the war in Europe, when Soviet troops scored a major victory against the German army at Stalingrad. Ordering his troops to take “not one step backwards,” Stalin gave his second-line forces strict orders to gun down any front-line soldier who attempted to flee. The Soviets encircled the German forces who were laying siege to the city, and after a fierce conflict that saw the deaths of half a million Soviet and German troops alike, the Germans surrendered on February 2, 1943.
After this victory, Stalin promoted himself to the rank of marshal and announced that he would personally direct the counteroffensive that would drive the German army all the way back to the very heart of Berlin and decimate its ranks. By the end of 1943, the Soviets had broken the German siege of Leningrad and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic. From November 28 to December 1, 1943, Stalin met in Tehran with Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to reaffirm their resolve to accept nothing less from Hitler than his unconditional surrender.
During the week of February 4-11, 1945, Stalin again met with Churchill and Roosevelt, this time near Yalta in the Crimea; this conference resulted in the “Yalta Declaration” formally stating the Allies’ intent to put an end to German militarism and Nazism. It was further agreed that once Germany had been defeated it would be divided into three zones of military occupation, and that Soviet forces would remain in Eastern Europe only until free elections could be held in the nations throughout that region. But Stalin, as history shows, would never honor his pledge to permit such elections and remove the Soviet military presence from Eastern Europe.
On the orders of a vengeful Stalin, in early 1945 Soviet forces marched into Germany under the slogan “There will be no pity. They have sown the wind and now they are harvesting the whirlwind.” In what scholars regard as the largest case of mass rape in recorded history, Soviet troops raped at least two million German women. Stalin was fully aware of the rape and looting but for several weeks did nothing to prevent it. On May 7, 1945, Germany offered its unconditional surrender.
After the war’s end, Stalin, ever-paranoid of the potentially corrupting effects of foreign influences, announced that all Soviet citizens – including military personnel – who had been detained in foreign prisons or work camps during the war should now be classified as traitors, and he ordered that they should all be executed or deported to the Gulags. Thus it came to be that some 1.5 million Red Army soldiers who had laid their lives on the line to fight for Stalin and their country, were shipped off to the labor camps of Siberia and the remote northern regions of the nation. Stalin made no exceptions to this policy, even going so far as to disown his own son who had been captured and detained by the German army in 1941.
Also under Stalin’s orders, the Communist Party now toughened its standards for admission and purged many “questionable” members who had joined its ranks during the War – for fear that an untold number of spies or “saboteurs” may have infiltrated the Party.
Between 1945 and 1948, Stalin transformed the Eastern European countries occupied by his army — Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia — into “satellite states” ruled by “puppet” communist governments – again in direct contravention to his pledge at Yalta.
In 1949 the ever-paranoid Stalin launched another series of purges throughout the Soviet Union. On his 70th birthday – December 21, 1949 – most members of the Leningrad party organization were arrested, along with their family members, in what would become known as the “Leningrad Affair.” Stalin feared that when Leningrad had experienced independence from the rest of the USSR during the German siege of 1941-44, the city’s population might have developed an affinity for self-governance. Thus Stalin forced all city leaders to confess that they had committed treason, and then had them summarily executed.
In April 1950 Stalin encouraged North Korea’s communist ruler Kim Il Sung to invade South Korea and unify the country as a single communist state, pledging to support the North’s military effort. But Stalin did not expect the United States to come to the aid of South Korea, which it did. As a result, the North Korean attempt to overrun the South ended unsuccessfully after three years and the loss of some 3 million lives.
In February 1953 Stalin began laying the groundwork for a new terror campaign against Soviet Jews, ordering the construction of four enormous prison camps in Kazakhstan, Siberia, and the Arctic north. But he did not live long enough to turn this dream into a reality. On March 1 he collapsed at his country home ouside of Moscow, and he died four days later of what was determined to be a cerebral hemorrhage.
So ended the life of perhaps the most infamous butcher in human history. Notwithstanding the decades he devoted to mass murder, however, Stalin successfully created a cult of personality that made him revered, and even worshipped, throughout the Soviet Union. Numerous cities and towns were named in his honor, as were the Stalin Prize (honoring achievements in science, mathematics, literatature, arts, and architecture) and the Stalin Peace Prize (the Soviet answer to the Nobel Peace Prize). His admirers lavished him with such titles as “Coryphaeus of Science,” “Father of Nations,” “Brilliant Genius of Humanity,” “Great Architect of Communism,” and “Gardener of Human Happiness.” This personality cult reached its apex during the “Great Patriotic War” against Germany, when Stalin was paid the great honor of having his name incoroporated into the new Soviet national anthem. Moreover, he was the subject of much literature, poetry, music, art, and film.
While such high honors paid to so horrific a historical figure may strike some readers as remarkable, Stalin was also worshipped by the international left, including American progressives. This was the same left that eventually would support Mao Tse Tung in China; the Communists in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Central America; Fidel Castro in Cuba; the Khomeini revolution in Iran; and most recently Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and America’s enemies in the current War on Terror. A slogan of the May Day parades of Stalin’s era was “Peace, Jobs and Democracy,” and their principal mission was to derail America’s attempt to check Stalin’s expansion of the Soviet empire throughout all of Europe. “We don’t want another war,” they said, meaning they opposed President Truman’s Cold War efforts against the Communist conquest of Eastern Europe.
Robert Conquest, Harvest of Sorrow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
Stephane Courtois et al, The Black Book of Communism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (Vintage Books, 1991).
Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (Modern Library, 2001).