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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Marx and Engels
Radical Russia
     Securing power
     New Economic Policy
     Union of republics
     Rise of Stalin
     Industrialization, collectivization
     Purge and Terror
     Sections missing

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Securing power

Lenin is swift in the steps taken to establish the Bolshevik party as the unmistakable (and soon to be unremovable) government of Russia.

In a definitive break with the recent past he moves the seat of government, on 10 March 1918, from Petrograd to Moscow. The centre of power is now back in the historic heart of the country, once again associated with the forbidding walls of the Kremlin. In the same month the Bolsheviks adopt a more national profile, changing their name to the Russian Communist Party. And as a gesture of modernity these days and months are now the same as those used by the rest of the world. From midnight on 31 January 1918 Lenin converts Russia to the Gregorian calendar. The next day is declared to be February 14.


These are symbolic changes. The practical imposition of Communist power throughout Russia is a harder task, but Lenin seems to relish the prospect of using the techniques of a police state to impose control through terror. He believes passionately in the need for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (albeit only as a stage in the progress towards a Communist utopia in which there is no need for government), and he is in no way averse to all the techniques of repression and cruelty invariably associated with dictatorship.

One might expect the imposition of the Communist dictatorship to be delayed or modified by the urgent need to fight a civil war. But if anything the war helps Lenin's cause


Trotsky, a man with a genius for organization, is put in charge of building up the Red Army. He does this with great efficiency. The more intelligent peasants, conscripted from the villages, become a valuable source of political activists. Educated by the army, they find in party membership their escape from the bleak life of rural poverty.

Meanwhile the demands of the civil war give the party an excuse to impose centralized control in what becomes known as War Communism. Food is forcibly collected for government distribution in the battle for grain waged against reluctant peasants by thuggish Food Brigades. Market trading of any kind is suppressed. And the management of factories is placed under Communist control.


This campaign, the world's first imposition of the managed economy which subsequently characterizes all Communist states, provokes profound opposition among peasants and workers alike. From the summer of 1918 there is increasing unrest, both in farms and factories. But it is not until after 1920, when the Whites have been defeated in the civil war, that the full extent of popular unrest is evident. There is widespread demand for the revival of the local soviets, the form of grassroots democracy which was the common cause of the majority in 1917.

The spring of 1921 confronts Lenin with his gravest crisis, as furious peasants and workers resort to violence.


All over the country Communist officials and soldiers are attacked in rural areas, often with incredible savagery, as peasant armies carry out ruthless guerrilla warfare (reprisals are no less brutal). A rash of strikes sweeps through the cities, beginning in Moscow in February 1921. At the end of the same month there is a mutiny by the sailors in the Kronstadt naval base near Petrograd. Their demands include free elections.

With every likelihood of the mutiny spreading to other garrisons, Lenin takes decisive action. On March 16 a massive attack is launched on the naval base, with artillery fire, aerial bombing and an assault across the ice by 50,000 Red Army troops. By the following day 10,000 Red Army troops are dead, but the mutiny is over (some 2500 rebels are subsequently shot without trial).


At this defining moment of Communist ruthlessness, the Tenth Party Congress is taking place in Moscow. Lenin uses the crisis of the mutiny to press home his advantage.

A pressure group within the party, calling itself the Workers' Opposition, is arguing for trades union rights. Lenin moves a motion condemning them and receives a massive majority. He then goes further. He succeeds in passing a resolution which bans the formation of factions within the party. Henceforth decisions of the Central Committee may be criticized, but only by individuals. So, from March 1921, the control of the Central Committee over the Communist party is as secure as the control of the Communist party over the nation.


New Economic Policy

Though inflexible on any topic affecting the power of the Communist party, Lenin is prepared to yield on other issues. Acknowledging that the attempt to requisition the peasants' entire harvest has been a disaster (corn is successfully hidden, fewer fields are planted, resentment is extreme), he persuades the Tenth Party Congress to vote for a U-turn. In what becomes known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), peasants are to be allowed to keep the surplus of their product after a tax in kind has been paid to the state. At the same time the ban on markets is lifted.

A vigorous rural trade revives at astonishing speed (though it also brings with it a rash of profiteers, much resented as Nepmen - from the initials of the New Economic Policy).


While this measure goes a long way towards appeasing the rural districts, those peasants actively involved in revolts are suppressed without mercy by the Red Army during the summer of 1921. Artillery, armoured cars, bombers and even poison gas are used in the campaign. Many of the captured are shot. Others (about 50,000) are herded into the first specially constructed concentration camps of the Soviet Union.

Lenin takes this opportunity to remove any further threat from the rival socialist parties, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, many of whom have supported the peasants. Some 500 Mensheviks are arrested during 1921. In show trials in the following year all members of the SR party are branded 'enemies of the people'.


Union of republics

Immediately after the October revolution the heart of the Russian empire (from Petrograd and Moscow through Siberia to the Pacific coast) is given a new name - the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The hint of federalism is a way of accomodating the nationalist aspirations of the many minorities in this vast swathe of land. It does not imply any intention of relaxing control from the centre, which by 1921 is absolute.

During the course of the civil war various regions outside this central bloc (Ukraine, Belorussia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) fall under the control of Communist governments, secured by the local power of the Red Army.


It is a natural next step to bring these regions into a closer relationship with Moscow. Early in 1922 Joseph Stalin, the general secretary of the Communist party, is given the task of drawing up a plan of federation. He brings together the first Congress of Soviets in Moscow in December of the same year. On December 30 the soviet republics of Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine and the Transcaucasian Federation agree to form a closer union. The following summer a constitution is established for a new state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR officially comes into being on 6 July 1923.

The constitution gives each republic the right to secede, but this is somewhat notional since each is governed by the same Communist party with its headquarters in Moscow. The political monolith which remains intact for nearly seventy years is now in place.


But at the same time the new state, born of violent revolution, begins to achieve international acceptance. A turning point is a Russian famine in the summer of 1921, the result of crop failure aggravated by Communist policies. Some 20 million people are threatened with starvation, prompting a massive international aid effort spearheaded by the USA.

With this first international contact, a pariah state starts to edge back into the fold. There are the beginnings of foreign trade. In 1922 Germany re-establishes full diplomatic relations and by the end of 1924 most other European countries have recognized the USSR. But by this time the Russian leadership has had to cope with a new crisis.


Rise of Stalin

Since the October revolution in 1917 the leadership of the Communist party, and thus of the nation, has been unmistakably in the hands of one man. While Trotsky has been an extremely able assistant, the ruthless securing of the revolution has been Lenin's achievement. But the unremitting work load takes its toll. In May 1922 he has a stroke. Not till October does he get back into his office. Just two months later a second stroke paralyzes his right side. He survives, an incapacitated invalid, for another year, dying in January 1924.

Trotsky has long been his obvious successor. But in April 1922, just a month before his first stroke, Lenin introduces a dark horse to the race.


Joseph Stalin, a committed Bolshevik from his early twenties and a passionate supporter of Lenin, has been in the inner circle of the party since the revolution. But the real growth of his power begins in April 1922 when Lenin creates a new post for him - General Secretary of the Communist Party.

In this position Stalin has direct control over party appointments. It gives him the perfect chance to prepare for the coming struggle after Lenin falls ill in May. During the remainder of 1922 Stalin appoints some 10,000 of his own supporters as provincial officials. When Lenin gets back to work in September, he finds that Russia is effectively ruled by a triumvirate of Stalin, Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev.


The three are united in their hatred of Trotsky, widely seen as a detached and arrogant intellectual. Both Kamenev and Zinoviev, considering themselves candidates to succeed Lenin, believe that they are using Stalin as a pawn in their personal strategy. But the reverse proves to be the case, as Stalin steadily strengthens his own faction.

Lenin, taking up the reins again, becomes for the first time aware of Stalin's character and ambition. As a result he is busy trying to reinforce Trotsky's position, as a counterweight to Stalin, when he has his second stroke, in December 1922. Stalin moves quickly. He takes charge of Lenin's doctors and persuades the central committee that the leader should be kept, for his own sake, in isolation. Lenin becomes, in effect, Stalin's prisoner.


In secret Lenin dictates a series of brief notes, intended for a forthcoming Party Congress, in which he condemns Stalin's behaviour and recommends his removal from the post of party secretary. He orders these notes (subsequently known as Lenin's Testament) to be sealed and kept for the moment in strict secrecy.

They are destined to remain secret for many years (until 1956), because in March 1923 Lenin suffers a third devasting stroke which robs him of the power of communication. He can only watch helplessly from the sidelines as Stalin continues to strengthen his position. In October Trotsky is censured for factionalism by a massive majority at a plenary session of the Politburo, the Communist executive committee. He narrowly escapes being expelled from the party.


Stalin, instinctively cautious, argues against Trotsky's expulsion. And he moves only slowly against Kamenev and Zinoviev, his partners in the triumvirate. But by 1926, with these two and Trotsky now allied in opposition to him, Stalin is strong enough to remove them from the Politburo. He expels them from the party in the following year. In 1928 he exiles Trotsky to remote Kazakhstan and in 1929 expels him from the USSR.

Kamenev and Zinoviev are shot in 1936, prominent victims of the show trials through which Stalin finally secures his personal reign of terror. Trotsky dies in a suburb of Mexico City in 1940, victim of an assassin sent to his home by his old adversary. Meanwhile Stalin, using methods as ruthless as his treatment of political rivals, has totally transformed the world's first Communist nation.


Industrialization, collectivization

There is much debate among the leadership of the Soviet Union during the 1920s as to whether the NEP, enabling the economy at least to tick over in a traditional way, should be replaced by a strong centralized drive to improve Russia's industrial and agricultural output. While he is unsure of his own power, Stalin trims on the issue - supporting the views of those who are most useful to him. But by 1929 he feels strong enough to force through a drastic plan of reform.

The first Five Year Plan, adopted by the party in 1929, predicts an increase during the period of 200% in industrial output and of 50% in agricultural produce. Such ambitions depend inevitably on harsh coercion of the work force.


The Five Year Plan is in a sense a return to the War Communism of the civil war years, and once again the supposedly rich peasants, the kulaks, bear the brunt of the policy. Not only is their land seized by the state to form collective farms, but they and their families are transported to Siberia and put to work in agricultural labour camps.

It is calculated that one in five of them, mainly the women and children, die on the journey - in the cattle trucks or on forced marches. When they arrive and are put to work, the barbarous conditions soon account for more. Six million of these uprooted peasants are believed to have died, in a tragedy barely perceived outside Russia until years later.


By 1935, two years after the end of the first Five Year Plan, more than 90% of Russia's agricultural land is farmed collectively. But the result is a massive drop in production rather than the predicted increase. When forced to merge their own smallholdings in a collective farm, the peasants tend to slaughter their animals thus reducing the common stock. And no amount of coercion is sufficient to make them plough and sow for the future with anything like their previous commitment.

During the early 1930s there are renewed famines and millions of deaths. But this time, unlike in 1921, there is no foreign aid to lessen the suffering - largely because Stalin does his best to suppress news of the disaster.


While collectivization is a failure, it turns out to be more feasible to impose industrialization. Determined to give Russia her own heavy industry, Stalin diverts production away from consumer goods - a change requiring the public to accept unprecedented scarcities.

He secures efficiency in his new factories by incentive schemes for managers and skilled workers (conveniently disregarding Communist notions of equality), while using what is in effect slave labour to keep down the state's bill for wages. Some 25 million peasants are moved from the land to the factories, where they are forced to work at subsistence levels under harsh industrial discipline. But the policy succeeds. By the end of the second Five Year Plan, in 1937, rural Russia has become a major industrial nation.


Both the method and the cost of these achievements can be seen in a prestige project dear to Stalin's heart - the construction of a canal to link the Baltic and the White Sea. The fulfilment of this difficult task, in the near-Arctic north, is entrusted to the political police (at this stage the OGPU, later to be known as the KGB). They are to provide the workers from the prisons and camps under their control. Of the 300,000 transported north to dig and labour, 200,000 die before the canal opens in 1933.

The human cost of industrialization and the evident failures of collectivization provoke pockets of dissent even within the tightly controlled Communist party. But by the mid-1930s Stalin feels strong enough to settle once and for all his political scores.


Purge and Terror

The period subsequently known as the Great Terror lasts in Russia from 1936 to 1938, but there is a turning point in this direction in 1934. Stalin has not until now used assassination of his comrades as a political weapon. But there is evidence (admittedly inconclusive) to suggest that his hand is behind the death in this year of his one-time protégé, Sergei Kirov.

In 1926 Stalin appointed Kirov, in place of Zinoviev, as head of the party in Leningrad (the new name given to Petrograd after Lenin's death in 1924). But now, in the early 1930s, Kirov is showing marked signs of independence, even perhaps to the point of seeming a potential rival to Stalin. In 1934 Kirov is assassinated in his office by a young party member.


Stalin acts swiftly, ordering the immediate death of the assassin and thirteen supposed accomplices. He follows this with the execution of hundreds of Leningrad comrades and the deportation of thousands of others for supposed involvement in the plot.

This is the first of Stalin's major purges, which become known to the world primarily through three great show trials held in Moscow in successive years from 1936. The first relates again to the Leningrad assassination. Stalin's one-time close colleagues and subsequent opponents, Zinoviev and Kamenev, are now charged with conspiring to kill not only Kirov but the entire Communist leadership.


They and their co-defendants are described by the prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky, as 'Mad Fascist police dogs! Despicable rotten dregs of humanity! Scum of the underworld!'. They confess to the trumped up charges and are shot.

The next show trial, in 1937, charges the accused more specifically with being terrorists in league with Trotsky (now living in exile and doing his best to publicize the truth about Stalin). Again all are convicted and nearly all are shot. The third, in 1938, brings together a more motley selection of victims - including some notable opponents of Stalin from the right-wing of the party and even the police chief who had prepared one of the earlier trials.


These high-level victims are what the world sees of Stalin's purges, but they are the tip of an iceberg. During the same period the party hierarchy is purged of almost everyone who had a part in achieving the revolution. The non-Russian Soviet republics suffer particularly severely. In some regions almost no-one above the age of 35 remains in place in the civil service, army or police. Trotskyite sympathies and bourgeois nationalism are the main charges against these 'enemies of the people'.

The figures are unknown, but it is probable that millions of officials and their families are variously executed, imprisoned or exiled. This scale of terror makes Hitler's slightly earlier Night of the Long Knives seem almost a parochial event.


By the end of 1938 the purges are complete. Stalin for the first time has total personal power. And his nation is one to be reckoned with, in terms of its industrial and military muscle.

But in the twenty years of its existence the first Communist state has provided a bleak image of Communism. Marx and Lenin predicted that dictatorship would be needed to secure the rule of the proletariat, and that for at least a generation little progress would be possible (while the majority of adults were still formed by pre-revolutionary society). But the ideal has always been that thereafter, with class warfare a thing of the past, the straitjacket of strict government can be abandoned in a society of peaceful equality.


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