Joseph Stalin Worried and weak, Lenin sat in his Moscow apartment. Seven months earlier, he had suffered the first of two strokes. Aware of his own poor health, Lenin was alarmed at the growing strength of Joseph Stalin. In a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist party, Lenin warned
“I propose to the comrades to find some way of removing Stalin from his position and appointing somebody else…more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and considerate to his comrades…This circumstance may seem to be a mere trifle, but I think that it is a trifle which may acquire a decisive importance”.
Despite Lenin’s warning, Stalin became the leader of the Soviet Union. The new ruler set up a brutal totalitarian state.
Stalin in Power—Stalin was born Joseph Dzugashvili. As a young revolutionary, he took the name Stalin, which means “steel”. When Lenin died Stalin and a man named Trotsky struggled for power. Stalin forced Trotsky into exile and then became dictator of the Soviet Union. Trotsky was later murdered by Stalin’s agents.
A planned economy—As Lenin’s successor, Stalin had very different ideas for the USSR. Lenin had proposed a gradual change to socialism under his New Economic Program (NEP). Stalin rejected this idea and instead launched a program that would rapidly change the USSR into a socialist nation. Under socialism, the government makes the basic decisions about the economy. Communists viewed this as a step toward a truly communist world.
Stalin believed that the Soviet Union would be unable to stand up to its capitalist rivals unless it modernized rapidly. “We are fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries,” he declared. “We must make up this gap in 10 years. Either we do it or they crush us!” In 1928 Stalin announced his first five year plan. It set ambitious goals for developing Soviet industry and increasing food production.
Industrial development—To make the Soviet Union a world power, Stalin emphasized heavy industry over consumer goods. He poured resources into building steel mills and dams for hydroelectric power. He set high goals for coal and oil production. New factories were built to produce chemicals, tractors, and other machines.
The Soviet Union made impressive gains. Output in steel, oil and other industries climbed rapidly. Those successes came at great human cost, however. Soviet factories and mines were operated by forced labor. Many people were worked to death. Even free workers were forbidden to strike. Workers who failed to meet quotas were severely punished. In addition, anyone who protested disappeared into Stalin’s huge network of prison and slave-labor camps.
Workers who did meet their quotas were proclaimed heroes of the Revolution. Propaganda in films, the press, and everywhere reinforced Stalin’s power over the people.
Collectivizing agriculture—Rapid industrialization required increased food production. Food surpluses were needed to feed city workers and for export to obtain money to buy the heavy machinery needed in factories. To increase food production, Stalin combined millions of small peasant farms into large collective farms. In theory, collective farms should have been more efficient. Many families would work together, using machinery and modern farm methods to produce food surpluses.
In fact, collectivization led to disaster. In protest, millions of peasants resisted the new system. They destroyed crops and livestock, contributing to the terrible famine that soon spread across the Soviet Union. Staline responded with violence. Red Army soldiers shot peasants who refused to give up their farms. Kulaks, or prosperous peasants, were sent to brutal labor camps. Between five and ten million people died as a result of collectivization and state terror.
By 1939 most peasants were working on collective farms. Food production rose slowly, however. Eventually, Stalin allowed peasants on collectives to tend small plots of land for their own use. There they grew vegetables and fruit and raised chickens, a few pigs, or a cow. Private plots made up only about three percent of the land. But because the peasants worked hard on them, those plots produced nearly 25% of the countries food.
The Communist Party—In 1939 Stalin wrote a new constitution for the Soviet Union. It set up an elected legislature called the Supreme Soviet. All citizens were expected to vote for members of the Supreme Soviet. However, the only political party allowed by law was the Communist Party so the voters had no choice in who they elected.
The communist part ruled everything. It controlled factories, schools, and farms. It also ran sports clubs, youth organizations, and newspapers.
Totalitarian rule—Under Stalin, the communist party built a totalitarian state. Using modern technology, the government exercised complete control over the people. Radios and loudspeakers broadcast the party’s message to the people. Through massive propaganda campaigns, the government convinced the people to support its goals. At the same time, the government used terror to enforce its will.
During the mid 1930s, Stalin launched the “great Purge”. Its purpose was to purge, or expel, Stalin’s rivals from the Communist party. Thousands of high ranking party members and military officers were charged with treason and were executed or imprisoned. Even many ordinary citizens faced a similar fate. Although the Great Purge increased Stalin’s power, it weakened the Soviet military at a time when Hitler’s activities were leading to war