Research Papers

Stalin’s Consolidation of Power in the Soviet Union

Stalin is one of the most notorious and ruthless dictators in all of history. He ruled over the Soviet Union for more than three decades, between 1922 and 1953, in which time he converted it from a socialist republic into a vast communist totalitarian regime that was one of the greatest industrial and military powers of the 20th century.1 During Stalin’s rule, he formed an incredibly vast and influential cult of personality that gave him intangible amounts of power and influence by not only establishing himself as the political leader of the Soviet Union, but also as the ideological and military leader of the state.2 Moreover, Stalin used propaganda to consolidate power by controlling the flow of information in the Soviet Union so that he could unknowingly indoctrinate citizens with his ideology and thinking.3 Likewise the notorious Great Purge, in which both officials and civilians alike were imprisoned and killed, was used to eliminate any political and ideological opposition to the Stalin regime.4 Consequently, Stalin used the terror he created during the Great Purge to force Soviet citizens into complaince and to further integrate Stalinist ideology into their daily livess.5 Stalin was ultimately able to consolidate power in the Soviet Union and become one of history’s most notable and ruthless dictators by building a cult of personality, running extensive propaganda campaigns, eliminating potential threats to his regime during the Great Purge, and by creating an environment of fear and terror to force his people into submission. 

Stalin built his cult of personality by establishing himself as the political, intellectual, and military leader of the Soviet Union.6 7 Before his eventual rise to power, Stalin wanted to become a Communist intellectual similar to that of Marx or Lenin.8 For this reason, Stalin spent his time avidly studying both Communist philosophy and history in order to join the ranks of other Soviet intellectuals.9 Over time, Stalin slowly gained prominence as both a state official and an intellectual, a prestige that very few could reach, as well as one that would be particularly useful to him in the future.10 When Stalin finally took power 1922 after the death of Lenin, he was able to present himself as not only the new political leader of the Soviet Union but as the new ideological leader of the state as well.11 As the intellectual leader of the state, Stalin produced his own ideological dogma and rewrote the history of the Russian revolution to further legitimize his position as the rightful successor of Lenin.12 With Stalin’s new version of Soviet history, it was nearly impossible to question his legitimacy as Lennin’s successor and as the rightful leader of the Communist party. Furthermore, Stalin used propaganda produced by the Soviet state to become a symbol of not only the Communist party but the Soviet state itself.13 Thus, to question Stalin’s authority was to question the authority of both the Communist party 

and the Soviet state itself.14 Consequently, as Stalin’s cult grew, he began producing more and more of his own political and ideological dogma that made him the face of progress in the Soviet Union.15 Perhaps the most significant and important evolution of Stalin’s cult came as the byproduct of World War 2.16 Stalin, before the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany in 1941, had protrayed himself as a benevolent yet strong leader.17 However, Stalin used the war to create a new warrior archetype as a military and strategic genius.18 An example of this archetype in practice can be seen during Stalin’s radio address on July 3, 1941, in which he stated, “In order to insure rapid mobilization of all the forces of the peoples of the USSR, and to repulse the enemy who has treacherously attacked our country, a State Committee of Defense has been formed in whose hands the entire power of the State has been vested. The State Committee of Defense has entered on its functions and calls upon all our people to rally around the Party of Lenin-Stalin and around the Soviet Government so as self-denying to support the Red Army and Navy, demolish the enemy and secure victory. All our forces-for the support of our heroic Red Army and our glorious Red Navy! All forces of the people-for the demolition of the enemy! Forward to our victory!”19 Stalin’s call to arms is a primary example of his military archetype in action, in which Stalin, like a great general, called upon his people to rise up and fight against the Nazi threat. Stalin heavily used speeches and other forms of state propaganda to inspire the Soviet people in their fight against the Germans with Stalin himself as the face of the war effort.20 The victory of the Allies in 1945 solidified Stalin’s warrior archetype and further legitimized Stalin’s authority by establishing him as the military genius who led the Soviet people to victory.21 Ultimately, by the end of the war, Stalin had been guaranteed unquestionable loyalty and faith from his people. However, maintaining a cult as large as Stalin’s was not an easy task, and that’s where the Soviet propaganda machine came into place.22 

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Propaganda, which Stalin prolifically used throughout his time in power, not only helped him build one the greatest personality cults of any dictator ever, but it also helped Stalin control the hearts and minds of his people.23 Under Stalin, the Soviet state carefully and meticulously produced propaganda that coincided with Stalin’s goals as a ruler.24 Through Stalin, all forms of media were weaponized and truth itself was monopolized by the Soviet state.25 The composition of entire newspapers, television, art, and radio, amongst other media, were completely owned and altered by the Soviet state in order to distribute propaganda and disinformation unknowingly to the Soviet people in mass.26 As stated in the Soviet-owned Newspaper the Pravada, “For our fatherland! This call fans the flame of heroism, the flame of creative initiative in pursuits and all fields of our rich life. For our fatherland! This call arouses millions of workers and alerts them in the defense of their great country.The defense of the fatherland is the supreme law of life. And he who raises his hand against his country, he who betrays his country should be destroyed.”27 Stalin found a way to implement state propaganda into all corners of life through the incredibly advanced propaganda machine that he built within the Soviet Union.28 By heavily implementing propaganda into the daily lives of Soviet citizens, Stalin was able to control the truth itself and to spread whatever message or narrative he desired, this being because there was no real news in the Soviet Union, only Stalin’s version of it.29 Despite the general success of Stalin’s propaganda and disinformation campaigns, Stalin still remained fearful that those around him would try to usurp his power and he thus sought to eliminate any and all threats he perceived to the Soviet state and his absolute power within it. 

During the Great Purge, which occurred between 1936 and 1938, millions of Soviet citizens were either killed or imprisoned in labor camps.30 31 The purge itself was a violent and barbaric campaign led by Stalin in order to eliminate all political opposition to his regime.32 Anyone who questioned Stalin’s authority or who he perceived as a threat was swiftly dealt with.33 Artists, politicians, intellectuals, and other groups of citizens were all targets of the purge.34 Despite the gruesome nature of the purge, Stalin and other officials framed the purge as an anti-corruption campaign.35 As stated by Nikolai Ezhov, a Soviet official, “The task of the organs of state security is mercilessly to destroy all this band of anti-Soviet elements, to protect the toiling Soviet people from their counter-revolutionary raids, and once and for all, to finish with their subversive work to undermine the foundations of the Soviet state.”36 Stalin and other high ranking party officials, such as Nikolai Ezhov, framed the Great Purge as a necessary step for the Communist party to rid itself of all it’s anti-communist influences, but this was far from reality. Many party officials targeted during the purge were condemned, jailed, and executed under the pretense of completely and utterly fabricated crimes so that Stalin could quickly and publicly eliminate his enemies without controversy or contradiction.37In addition, the trials officials were subjected to were just as artificial as the crimes they were accused of, with fixed juries, fake evidence, and in many cases with fake confessions that were forced out of those on trial.38 Stalin ultimately used these shame trials to eliminate any party official he wanted without a moment of hesitation, which allowed Stalin to completely reshape the Communist party and to further legitimize his power as a whole.39 However, Soviet officials were not the only group targeted during the Great Purge. Stalin selectively targeted certain enthinc groups within the USSR and other independent states under Soviet control.40 During the Great Purge around 700,000 to 1,000,000 people were systematically executed by the Soviet state, around 111,000 of which were Poles.41 During this period, Poles were 34% more likely to be arrested than regular Soviet citizens and 78% of Poles who were arrested were eventually executed.42 Soviet officials such as Vsevolod Balytskyi, the Chief of the Ukrainian NKVD, even went as far to blame the Poles for the famine that had struck Ukraine during Collectivization and claimed the Poles they had imprisoned and executed were in fact spies, which was yet another complete and utter lie.43 Not only was the Soviet state clearly responsible for the Ukrainian genocide but the “Polish spies” they were killing were just ordinary citizens, who like many Soviet officials were tortured and forced to confess to crimes which they did not commit.44 By creating this narrative, the Soviet state not only justified their systematic execution of more than a hundred thousand Polish people, but they also created an excuse for the genocide Stalin iniated in Ukraine through his failed Collectization plan. However, Poles were not the only ethnic group targeted by Stalin. Aproxiately 36% of those killed in the purge belonged to independent Soviet controlled states, in which people were twenty times more likely to be executed than other Soviet citizens.45 The only ones spared from Stalin’s carnage were Communist and certain diplomats backed by the Soviet government, but those who were spared were few in number relative to those killed.46 The Great Purge without exception inspired terror in Soviet citizens, however, Stalin did not waste this opportunity to capilize on the fear of his own citizens. 

The Great Purge and other violent policies employed by Stalin created an environment of fear, which not only discouraged opposition towards Stalin’s regime but also motivated cooperation and loyalty to the Communist party. The Great Purge is perhaps the greatest example of how Stalin was able to create and capitalize on fear.47 The systematic wide scale arrest and execution of Soviet government officials and citizens alike created an environment of fear that permeated the Soviet Union for years.48 The scale of the Great Purge was unquestionably massive as more than a million people were either killed or imprisoned in Stalin’s notorious labor camps, the Gulags, which naturally affected the lives of countless other citizens.49 Stalin was well aware of the fear he inspired and wanted to fully capitalize on it.50 Stalin reasoned that to truly control his people they would not only have to love him but fear him as well.51 Fear became the main motivator for compliance in Stalin’s regime, further solidifying his position and unquestionable authority as the leader of the Soviet Union.52 The Great Purge ultimately made citizens completely and utterly terrified of defying the Soviet state in a way due to the certainty and severity of their punishment for doing so.53 Many Soviet citizens consequently lived in fear under Stalin, worried that any misstep would get them killed or sent away to a Gulag.54 Soviet officials also felt a great degree of pressure from the purge, as Stalin eliminated anyone he feared could or would provide political opposition to him.55 Thus, disagreeing with Stalin was a near death sentence. Furthermore, many of those killed by Stalin had been Bolsheviks long before the November Revolution, which not only further legitimized Stalin’s authority but it showed that he could and was willing to kill anyone he pleased.56 Stalin himself justified the purge as a costless strategy that insured the security of the Communist party, despite his clear motivation to insure his longevity in power.57In the end, however, Stalin used fear as yet another mechanism to secure his goal of total and unadulterated authority in the Soviet Union through his often brutal and vicious actions. 

Ultimately, Stalin was able to consolidate power in the Soviet Union through his cult of personality, use of propaganda, the Great Purgee, and the fear and terror he inspired in his own people. Stalin through his extreme and often costly decisions, in which the loss of human life was often a consequence, was able to secure control of the Soviet Union until his eventual death in 1953 and to cultivate one of the greatest and most feared global superpowers of the 20th Century by rapidly industrializing and modernizing the Soviet Union.58 Although Stalin himself has been dead for more than half a century, the ruthlessness and prestige that he displayed while in power is what made him one of the most notable and important dictators in all of modern history. In the wake of Stalin’s legacy, it is important to remember the cruelty and heartlessness that certain men are capable of when their power is not put into check and the atrocities that will undoubtedly happen as a result. For this reason, we can learn from Stalin the importance of holding our leaders accountable for both the lives and well-being of their citizens and the horrible consequences of not doing so.

Endnotes:

1 Hiroaki Kuromiya, “Stalin and His Era,” The Historical Journal 50, no. 3 (2007): pp. 711-724, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0018246x07006322, 711.

2 Tucker, Roberct. “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult.” The American Historical Review, vol. 84, no. 2, Apr. 1979, pp. 347–366., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/84.2.347. 

3 Corbesero, Susan. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History 38, no. 1 (2011): 58–84. https://doi.org/10.1163/187633111×549605. 

4Gretty, J Arch, et al. “Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence.” The American Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 4, Oct. 1993, pp. 1017–1049., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/98.4.1017. 

5 Gretty, J Arch, et al. “Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence.” The American Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 4, Oct. 1993, pp. 1017–1049., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/98.4.1017. 

6 Tucker, Roberct. “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult.” The American Historical Review, vol. 84, no. 2, Apr. 1979, pp. 347–366., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/84.2.347.

7 Pisch, Anita. “Stalin Is like a Fairytale Sycamore Tree — Stalin as a Symbol.” Essay. In The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications, 292–93. Acton, A.C.T.: Australian National University Press, 2016. 

8 Tucker, Roberct. “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult.” The American Historical Review, vol. 84, no. 2, Apr. 1979, pp. 347–366., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/84.2.347. 

9 Tucker, Roberct. “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult.” The American Historical Review, vol. 84, no. 2, Apr. 1979, pp. 347–366., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/84.2.347. 

10 Tucker, Roberct. “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult.” The American Historical Review, vol. 84, no. 2, Apr. 1979, pp. 347–366., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/84.2.347. 

11 Tucker, Roberct. “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult.” The American Historical Review, vol. 84, no. 2, Apr. 1979, pp. 347–366., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/84.2.347. 

12 Tucker, Roberct. “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult.” The American Historical Review, vol. 84, no. 2, Apr. 1979, pp. 347–366., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/84.2.347. 

13 Pisch, Anita. “Stalin Is like a Fairytale Sycamore Tree — Stalin as a Symbol.” Essay. In The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications, 192–93. Acton, A.C.T.: Australian National University Press, 2016

14 Pisch, Anita. “Stalin Is like a Fairytale Sycamore Tree — Stalin as a Symbol.” Essay. In The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications, 192–93. Acton, A.C.T.: Australian National University Press, 2016.

15 Pisch, Anita. “Stalin Is like a Fairytale Sycamore Tree — Stalin as a Symbol.” Essay. In The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications, 192–93. Acton, A.C.T.: Australian National University Press, 2016. 

16 Pisch, Anita. “Stalin Is like a Fairytale Sycamore Tree — Stalin as a Symbol.” Essay. In The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications, 192–93. Acton, A.C.T.: Australian National University Press, 2016. 

17 Pisch, Anita. “Stalin Is like a Fairytale Sycamore Tree — Stalin as a Symbol.” Essay. In The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications, 192–93. Acton, A.C.T.: Australian National University Press, 2016. 

18 Pisch, Anita. “Stalin Is like a Fairytale Sycamore Tree — Stalin as a Symbol.” Essay. In The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications, 292–93. Acton, A.C.T.: Australian National University Press, 2016. 

19 Iosiff Stalin, “Brothers and Sisters!”, 3 July 1941, Washington: Embassy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. 

20 Pisch, Anita. “Stalin Is like a Fairytale Sycamore Tree — Stalin as a Symbol.” Essay. In The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications, 192–93. Acton, A.C.T.: Australian National University Press, 2016.

21 Pisch, Anita. “Stalin Is like a Fairytale Sycamore Tree — Stalin as a Symbol.” Essay. In The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications, 192–93. Acton, A.C.T.: Australian National University Press, 2016. 

22 Tucker, Roberct. “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult.” The American Historical Review, vol. 84, no. 2, Apr. 1979, pp. 347–366., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/84.2.347. 

23 Corbesero, Susan. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History, vol. 38, no. 1, 2011, pp. 58–84., https://doi.org/10.1163/187633111×549605. 

24 Corbesero, Susan. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History, vol. 38, no. 1, 2011, pp. 58–84., https://doi.org/10.1163/187633111×549605. 

25 Corbesero, Susan. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History, vol. 38, no. 1, 2011, pp. 58–84., https://doi.org/10.1163/187633111×549605. 

26 Corbesero, Susan. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History, vol. 38, no. 1, 2011, pp. 58–84., https://doi.org/10.1163/187633111×549605. 

27 Pravada, “For the Fatherland!”, 9 JUNE 1934, Washington: Government Printing Office.28 Corbesero, Susan. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History, vol. 38, no. 1, 2011, pp. 58–84., https://doi.org/10.1163/187633111×549605. 

29 Corbesero, Susan. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History, vol. 38, no. 1, 2011, pp. 58–84., https://doi.org/10.1163/187633111×549605. 

30 Gretty, J Arch, et al. “Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence.” The American Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 4, Oct. 1993, pp. 1017–1049., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/98.4.1017. 

31 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 

32 Corbesero, Susan. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History, vol. 38, no. 1, 2011, pp. 58–84., https://doi.org/10.1163/187633111×549605. 

33 Corbesero, Susan. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History, vol. 38, no. 1, 2011, pp. 58–84., https://doi.org/10.1163/187633111×549605. 

41 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

42 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 

43 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 

44 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 

45 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 

46 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 

47 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

48 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 

49 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 

50 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 

51 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 

52 Thurston, Robert W. “Fear and Belief in the USSR’s ‘Great Terror’: Response to Arrest, 1935-1939.” Slavic Review, vol. 45, no. 2, 1986, pp. 213–234., https://doi.org/10.2307/2499175. 

53 Corbesero, Susan. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History, vol. 38, no. 1, 2011, pp. 58–84., https://doi.org/10.1163/187633111×549605. 

54 Thurston, Robert W. “Fear and Belief in the USSR’s ‘Great Terror’: Response to Arrest, 1935-1939.” Slavic Review, vol. 45, no. 2, 1986, pp. 213–234., https://doi.org/10.2307/2499175. 

55 Thurston, Robert W. “Fear and Belief in the USSR’s ‘Great Terror’: Response to Arrest, 1935-1939.” Slavic Review, vol. 45, no. 2, 1986, pp. 213–234., https://doi.org/10.2307/2499175.

56 Thurston, Robert W. “Fear and Belief in the USSR’s ‘Great Terror’: Response to Arrest, 1935-1939.” Slavic Review, vol. 45, no. 2, 1986, pp. 213–234., https://doi.org/10.2307/2499175. 

57 Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 

58 Hiroaki Kuromiya, “Stalin and His Era,” The Historical Journal 50, no. 3 (2007): pp. 711-724, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0018246x07006322, 711. 

 

Bibliography: 

  1. Corbesero, Susan. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History 38, no. 1 (2011): 58–84. https://doi.org/10.1163/187633111×549605. 
  2. Gretty, J Arch, et al. “Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence.” The American Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 4, Oct. 1993, pp. 1017–1049., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/98.4.1017. 
  3. Hiroaki Kuromiya, “Stalin and His Era,” The Historical Journal 50, no. 3 (2007): pp. 711-724, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0018246x07006322, 711. 
  4. Iosiff Stalin, “Brothers and Sisters!”, 3 July 1941, Washington: Embassy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
  5. Nikolai Ezhov, “Operational Order,” 30 July 1937, Mina zamedlennogo deistviia: Politicheskii portret KGB.
  6. Pravada, “For the Fatherland!”, 9 JUNE 1934, Washington: Government Printing Office.
  7. Pisch, Anita. “Stalin Is like a Fairytale Sycamore Tree — Stalin as a Symbol.” Essay. In The Personality Cult of Stalin in Soviet Posters, 1929-1953: Archetypes, Inventions and Fabrications, 292–93. Acton, A.C.T.: Australian National University Press, 2016. 
  8. Snyder, Timothy. “National Terror.” Essay. In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 89–107. New York: Basic Books, 2012. 
  9. Thurston, Robert W. “Fear and Belief in the USSR’s ‘Great Terror’: Response to Arrest, 1935-1939.” Slavic Review, vol. 45, no. 2, 1986, pp. 213–234., https://doi.org/10.2307/2499175. 
  10. Tucker, Roberct. “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult.” The American Historical Review, vol. 84, no. 2, Apr. 1979, pp. 347–366., https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/84.2.347.



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