Why was Stalin able to establish his dictatorship in Russia? M/J 2011

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Answer outline for Qualifying Exam 2012 Paper 1

Prepared by Shahrin Said MSPSBS

Question 7

Why was Stalin able to establish his dictatorship in Russia? M/J 2011


  • No one factor seems to offer a satisfactory explanation for Stalin’s emergence and rise to power. Even up until now with opening of the former Soviet archives in the 1990s, Soviet and Western scholars still continue on to debate which factors contributed the most to Stalin’s establishment of a dictatorship.

  • In fact the main historical approaches such as power politics, structuralist explanations and ideological explanations often overlap in several respects offer a shed of light as to how and why Stalin’s able to establish his dictatorship in Russia.

    • Stalin’s power, the effective use of terror and propaganda as well as socio-economic policies were some of the key factors why he was able to establish his dictatorship in Russia.

    • The most important factor was his systematic use of terror to decimate oppositions which was enforced by the NKVD. In fact, the purges allowed him to become dominant and had effectively controlled Soviet society and destroyed any mutual trust among leading communists, leaving the party powerless to oppose Stalin’s plans.


  • The main reason for Stalin’s emergence as a leader can be explained in terms of power politics.

    • The proponents of the view that all Stalin wanted was power argue that Stalin’s rise was a deliberate manipulation of genuine political and ideological differences among the Bolshevik leaders either, according to Robert Conquest, to gain supreme power for himself by crushing all other factions.

    • His success is seen as depending not only on his political shrewdness and ruthlessness but also on the weaknesses and mistakes of his rivals.

      • E.H Carr portrays Zinoviev and Kamenev as careerist and weak-willed, while S.Cohen argues that Bukharin’s commitment to the NEP blinded him posed by Stalin until it was too late. More importantly, Lenin only realized the threat from Stalin until 1922 and he was too ill to be politically active.

      • Trotsky made several serious errors and miscalculations because he dismissed Stalin as a ‘grey blur’ and a ‘mediocrity’. One of his most serious mistakes was handing over Lenin’s notes to the Politburo almost at the very beginning of the struggle. This meant that he was left with no documentary proof of Lenin’s growing opposition to Stalin’s actions.

    • Unlike power politics, structuralist explanations on the rise of Stalin are based on history and society’s structure. Stalin was a product of Russian history and the administrative system set up after 1917. Some historians see Stalin as a ruler in the long Tsarist tradition of absolutist rule of dictatorial and often brutal methods.

      • Others point to the impact of emergencies such as the civil war which led to the development of appointment rather than election for party and state positions. As the party grew in size, the secretariat and Orgburo became increasingly important for the administration of Politburo decisions. As the administrative apparatus grew, so did Stalin’s power to appoint, at both national and local level.

        • As a result, bureaucracy increased, which enabled Stalin to control party congresses, the Central Committee and the Politburo itself. R. Daniel calls this a ‘circular flow of power’, by which Stalin appointed local party leaders who, in turn, controlled elections to party organisations.

    • Ideological explanations on the rise of Stalin stress the genuine nature of the political differences between the Communist leaders of the 1920s, especially over the NEP. The left were sticking to orthodox Marxism by stressing the dangers inherent in the NEP (the restoration of capitalism) whereas the right argued that because the Soviet Union was overwhelmingly agricultural and backward, and industry was in crisis, the NEP and the smychka were essential if the economy was to revive.

      • Stalin’s rise can thus be seen as a genuine political response by the centre to steer a middle policy course. At the beginning, the centre believed the NEP was essential for recovery and so opposed the left. Later once the peasants began to defend their interests against the workers’ state, they came to see that a change was needed and for this reason they began to attack the policies of the right.

      • It can be said that Stalin’s policies were consistent and also in tune with the majority of the party membership, who desired stability most of all. To them, Stalin’s policy of continuing the NEP and socialism in one country seemed a safer bet than Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution and it appealed to their national pride. Stalin’s dramatic change of course in 1927-28 can be seen as a response to a real rural crisis. His switch to collectivization and industrialization seemed entirely logical and correct. This was one reason why so many ex-Oppositionists moved to support him in 1928.

  • The most important factor for Stalin to establish dictatorship is the use of terror because the need to secure power and eliminate dissent which still existed within the Communist Party by 1929 and in the years 1930-34 which Stalin’s policies could not always be adopted.

    • This undercurrent of dissent, which involved leaders in the Politburo and the Central Committee, led Stalin to fear that he might be replaced, especially as his old opponents and defeated rivals were still around.

    • While this opposition was not overt, Stalin came to feel that, in order to maintain the party’s and his own power, drastic action was required. In contrast to Lenin’s limited use of terror, Stalin certainly pushed terror way beyond the limits set by Lenin and realized that control over the media and effective propaganda are often not enough to establish and secure total power; coercion and violence or at least threat of them, are also necessary weapons.

    • Although some historians have explained Stalin’s Terror as the result of madness (R. Tucker have argued that Stalin launched the purges because he was suffering from some form of mental illness or at least paranoia that led to irrational action), there are several objectives reasons why Stalin did not feel secure in his power.

      • Some revisionist theorists such as G. Rittersporn have argued that although Stalin made crucial appointments (especially replacing Yagoda with Yezhov as head of the NKVD) the NKVD and local party bosses were often out of control in the chaos of the 1930s and frequently took matters well beyond Stalin’s intentions. At times, the Great Terror was an opportunity for rival local leaders to settle scores.

      • Other historians such as J. Arch Getty have also suggested that there is evidence to prove that Stalin’s belief in a Trotskyist- Zinovievist Plot was based, at least in part, on fact. While allegations about links with foreign agents and sabotage were false, between 1930 and 1932 middle-ranking communist officials did contact Trotsky about forming a new opposition bloc, and proposals for a Trotsky-Zinoviev alliance were made. Getty has also suggested that the Yezhovshchina can be seen as a radical measure that was intended to remove entire layers of bureaucracy.

    • Despite the repressive methods adopted by Stalin can be labeled as irrational, the cult of personality he enshrined since the death of Lenin (in fact he presented himself as the heir to Lenin even though at most times exaggerating his relationship) and more profoundly during the purges when he increased his appearance in public, having his photograph taken with children, airmen, and Stakhanovites, being hailed as the source of the "happy life," and according to Pravda, riding the subway with common workers. Indeed his image was never in any harmed by his own undoing in fact the propaganda was so effectual that many young people that worked hard at construction idolized Stalin and interestingly, many people chose to believe rather that the charges made at the purges were true rather than believing that Stalin had betrayed the revolution.

      • At the same time the means of using propaganda also to the extent allowed him to omit inconvenient facts that could expose his personal weaknesses such as his having wanted to cooperate with the tsarist government on his return for exile, were purged from his biography.

  • Other significant factor that contributes to the Stalin’s establishment of dictatorship in Russia is the policies that he adopted in socio-economic aspects in Stalinist state that underpinned his insistence on control.

    • This factor can be seen as the least important due to the over-reliance of terror to ensure the socio-economic policies were carried out as planned and without such violent approach it might most likely give further exposure of dissidents to create chaos as seen such case for the Kulaks in most villages.

    • Another reason is the claim that Stalin’s policy was in nowhere individually planned by him showing his lacking of authority and control that restraint the factor to only of a secondary importance. In fact such claim tend to be true particularly at local level where regional managers struggling to make sense of the instructions given from on high.

  • In the field of education, Stalin insisted control over the minds of young people (overtly exposure to Marxist theory in the schools) while at the same time aimed to modernize the Soviet Union by making formal education as a priority and stressed the need for discipline and order so that the youths can instill such disciplinary attitude at workplace in the new Communist society.

    • The demands of Stalinism were in obvious practice when in 1935 the Soviet Academy of sciences became the controlling body over all scholars. The Academy pledged itself totally to Stalin and all the academicians would produce work wholly in keeping with Stalinist values. They would become politically correct. Any deviance of scholars to anti-Stalin would not only lead to the termination of their academic and social privileges but also removal from their posts and dumped in the gulag.

    • However the distressing aspect of this was that Soviet historians no longer engaged in genuine historical research and analysis. Their reputation and acceptance as scholars depended on their presenting history shaped and interpreted as Stalin wanted. They ceased to be historians in any meaningful sense.

  • In the aspect of religion, Stalin placed his view similar to Lenin that religion had no place in a socialist society. Religion was seen as an affront to the collective needs and might disrupt the Five Year Plan and the process of industrialization.

    • The Orthodox Church was the main target and was prohibited even destroyed in rural areas for example many rural provinces showed resistance to religious suppression when their church bells were confiscated and on top of that the rural priests were publicly humiliated by being forced to perform demeaning tasks in public such as clearing out pigsties.

    • Such resistance could only be tamed by the Purges and have been an accompaniment of the suppression of religion so that conformity had to be imposed and that workers would remain obedient and productive in a new Communist State.

  • Soviet industrialization under Stalin that took the form of a series of Five Year Plan showed his insistence of control through the set-up of Gosplan that drew a list of quota of production across the whole of Soviet industry.

    • The First Five Year Plan received little resistance due to repressive measures taken such as the use of OGPU agents and Party cadres to terrorise the workforce.

    • The public trials of industrial wreckers were commonly carried out that intended to frighten the workers into line. Such incidence happened to the anti-Soviet conspiracy among the mining engineers of Shakty in the Donbass region.

    • In addition Stalin also applied the notions of industrial saboteurs to place blame for poor quality and underproduction on managers and workers who were not prepared to play their proper part in rebuilding the nation even though in reality they were not given proper training to replace the purged skilled workers. Sabotage became a blanket term used to denounce anyone considering not to be pulling his weight. The simplest errors such as being late for work or mislaying tools, could lead to such a charge.

    • Grand projects of Communism such as the city of Magnitogorsk and the White Sea Canal partly to boast foreign counterparts were successful due to insistence control over workers through rewards, workers’ rights such as a code of labour discipline that demanded maximum effort and output and above all the manipulation of purges.


Allan Todd The European Dictatorships

Micheal Lynch From Autocracy to Communism: Russia 1894-1941

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