In what ways did Stalin consolidate his totalitarian rule up to 1939?

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In what ways did Stalin consolidate his totalitarian rule up to 1939?
By 1928, Stalin had ousted his rivals to establish a dominant position in the ruling Politbureau. However, it was not until the late 1930s that he had consolidated his power and established a totalitarian regime within the USSR. He did this through a combination of propaganda, terror, political skill and his ability to win support as a result of the perceived success of his industrialisation program.
From the outset, propaganda was an essential tool in the consolidation of Stalin’s power. The campaign to create a ‘cult of Stalin’ began in 1929, when an enormous celebration was planned for his 50th birthday. Using the Party's control over the media, Stalin was presented as the 'Supreme Genius of Humanity' – the true successor to Lenin. His face now began to appear everywhere – in photographs and paintings, on the sides of houses and buildings. Cities and towns were named in his honour. Children were taught to give thanks to him for their happy lives.

In 1935, Stalin commissioned an official history of the Communist Party of the USSR, known as the Short Course. In this book's version of events, it was Stalin who played the dominant role in organising the November Revolution and who devised the strategies which won Civil War. Forty two million copies of the Short Course were printed, and it became required reading for all new Party members. As the sole version of Soviet history now available, it helped win for Stalin a bevy of new supporters and cemented his popularity with the younger generation.

However, propaganda alone was not enough to transform Russia into a totalitarian state. As Alan Bullock has observed, Stalin understood “that propaganda is most effective when it is backed by terror.” (Bullock: 305)

No sooner had Stalin eliminated his rivals from the Politburo in 1928, than he began using the secret police to enforce his will. He realised the importance of providing the people with scapegoats – enemies they could blame for the nation’s (and therefore their own) problems. Beginning with the trial of fifty engineers for sabotage at the Shakhty mines in 1928, Stalin unleashed a wage of repression – aimed at diverting attention from his own failures, and preparing people for the bloodletting that was to come. In 1930, he purged the so-called ‘Industrial Party’; the following year, he turned on the ‘Union Bureau’. All the while, he honed his killers in the campaign against the kulaks, during the collectivisation process.

The great purges were sparked by the murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934. Whether Stalin ordered the murder or not, he certainly used it as a pretext to unleash a series of spectacular show trials, aimed at discrediting and eliminating his enemies within the Central Committee.

In the first of these trials, in 1936, Stalin eliminated the so-called ‘Oppositionists’ – those Old Bolsheviks who had opposed him in the 1920s (men like Kamenev and Zinoviev). The second set of trials, in 1937, was aimed at Stalin’s own allies – those who had sought a policy of relaxation and reconciliation at the 1934 Party Congress (such as Pyatikov and Radek), contrary to Stalin’s wishes. The intention was to demonstrate that Stalin would brook no opposition, even among his own allies.

The final set of trials, in 1938, eliminated all the remaining members of Lenin’s original Party (men like Bukharin and Rykov). It was accompanied by a full-scale assault on every institution in the Soviet Union: the Party, the army, the bureaucracy, the cultural organisations, the industrial enterprises, even the secret police. In all, 18 million people died during the purges of the 1930s.
Of course, propaganda and fear are not sufficient to explain Stalin's extraordinary accumulation of power. No dictator can hope to rule without popular support, and this was also true of Stalin. Power can only be acquired and retained by delivering benefits to significant numbers of people. In Stalin’s case, this was achieved via the industrialisation process, which shifted millions of people from the countryside to the cities, where jobs were plentiful and wages were comparatively good. Many of these people – formerly ignorant peasants – benefitted from Stalin's rule.

At the same time, skilled urban workers – particularly those who belonged to the Communist Party – were recruited into positions of responsibility, to run the factories and government departments that proliferated under Stalin. These people “represented the spearhead of the large-scale upward mobility of the sons and daughters of the working class moving into higher education, administrative and managerial jobs in the years 1928-31.” (Bullock: 299) And as the higher echelons of the Party were purged, the pace and extent of that upward mobility increased. As this new nomenklatura rose, “they became bound to the system of unequal privileges and rewards which Stalin established for those upon whom the regime depended, Party and ministry officials, OGPU agents and now the new managerial elite.” (Bullock: 303). Not surprisingly, they owed their status and position to Stalin, and became the bedrock of his power base.

Stalin also used the perception of economic success to consolidate his support within the Party and among the Soviet people. At an ideological level, he offered a tantalising vision – the building socialism in one country – and to many, he appeared to be delivering the goods. Economically, he engineered the transformation of Russia into a industrialised nation on a par with its rivals in the West. These achievements were impressive, given that they were accomplished over a period of only ten years. Not surprisingly, they elicited considerable respect and admiration from people in the USSR.
Finally, Stalin used his political skills to out-manoeuvre his rivals and acquire the powers of a dictator. Throughout the 1930s, he demonstrated a ruthless capacity to seize opportunities when they arose. This is best illustrated by the way he used Kirov’s murder to attack his opponents – actual and potential. Although there is not proof that Stalin was behind the assassination, it seems almost certain that he was. Kirov was a genuine rival, and Stalin had every reason to want him out of the way. But not only did Stalin have him removed, he also managed to pin the assassination on Kirov's own supporters – thereby eliminating all his opponents in one swoop. It is no exaggeration to say that Stalin overwhelmed his rivals with his ruthlessness, his audacity and his brutal determination.
Hence it can be seen that Stalin's consolidation of totalitarian power was the result of a combination of factors – in particular, his use of propaganda, terror, political skill and his ability to win support among key sectors of Soviet society.

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