After suffering a series of strokes, Lenin died in 1924 without naming a successor. Two men, both of whom had been close to Lenin but neither of whom he believed should rule, emerged as the most likely candidates for dictator: Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin.
Trotsky was born Leon Bronstein in 1879 in the Black Sea province of Kherson. A political protestor in his youth, he had been imprisoned and exiled to Siberia. On his successful escape, he took the name Trotsky. He had been Lenin’s closest associate, despite violent disagreements between them, and had played a major role in the coup of 1917. Joseph Stalin was born Joseph Dzhugashvili in 1878 in Georgia. An early follower of Lenin, he led an outlaw existence throughout much of his youth and was imprisoned on a number of occasions. He founded the workers’ newspaper Pravda (Truth) . Stalin, based on the Russian word for “steel,” was a pen name he used throughout his career. Like Trotsky, Stalin rose to a prominent position of leadership among the Communists, although he had serious and frequent disagreements with Lenin. In the power struggle following Lenin’s death, Stalin triumphed over Trotsky and became dictator; it was not long before he forced Trotsky to leave the country for good.
Stalin has earned the reputation of being history’s most ruthless dictator, with the possible exception of Adolf Hitler. Under his rule, the Soviet Union could accurately be described as a police state. Stalin enforced his policies with no evidence of a conscience and no regard whatsoever for human life. Historians have estimated that about 30 million Russians died during his regime— some of starvation or disease, but most either in the brutal conditions of the labor camps or because their executions were ordered by the state. The government was careful to conceal evidence of Stalin’s brutality from the outside world; even many Russians were not aware of its full extent.
The Communists all believed that industrialization was of paramount importance in making the Soviet Union a major European power once again. How- ever, they differed over the means toward achieving this end. Some believed that since the grain harvests were needed to feed the industrial workers, the state should try to gain the peasants’ support. Others believed that it was not necessary to conciliate the peasants, since the state could force them into obedience. Stalin was one of the latter group.
Stalin’s policy, called the Five-Year Plan, was implemented in 1929. It involved two goals. The first was collectivization, in which small independent farmers (known in Russian as kulaks ) and subsistence farmers were forced to pool their land and work the new, giant farms together, with the state dictating prices. Since the kulaks were accustomed to independence, owning their own land and farming it as they saw fit, they naturally had no desire to join state-run collectives. Their lack of cooperation made Stalin decide to get rid of them; he was genuinely at odds with the peasants, considering them nothing more than a means for providing the urban workers with food. Between 1930 and 1933, more than 2 million kulaks and “sympathizers” were deported, either to collective farms far from their own districts or to prison camps.
The second goal of the Five-Year Plan was to develop heavy industry. Russia had been slow to industrialize but had begun to catch up to the rest of Europe by 1913. Although the war and revolution put a stop to this process, production had risen nearly to its 1913 levels by 1927. As part of the Five-Year Plan, the state called for major public-works projects, including the Moscow Metro, railways, canals, and power plants. Many were built with prison-camp labor. As a result of the Five-Year Plan, employment doubled and industrial output more than doubled by 1932—but not without taking a toll on the workers. Other Five-Year Plans would follow.
Artists and intellectuals had a particularly bad time of it under the new regime. Under the New Economic Policy, some bold experimentation had occurred in the arts, but Stalin immediately put a stop to it. He believed that the purpose of all art was to serve the state, not to express what an individual artist wished to communicate. Books, films, popular songs, symphonies, paintings, plays—works of art in all genres were banned if they hinted at any criticism of the regime or suggested that social conditions in Russia were anything short of ideal. Some emigrated to Europe or the United States; others stayed and did their best to come to terms with the policies.
Although Stalin achieved an impressive degree of control over the state and the people, there were some things he could not control, even with his willingness to use any means necessary. During his first few years in power, the Soviet Union experienced severe food shortages, widespread lack of cooperation from the peasants, mass migrations to the cities that left fewer people to farm the land, a typhus epidemic, and in 1933, a famine that probably killed more than 4 million people. The nation’s economic gains during this period are especially impressive considering the harsh conditions in which the people were living.
During the mid-1930s, a wave of executions and banishments known as the Great Purges did much to establish Stalin’s historical reputation. Historians’ interpretations of the Great Purges vary, but most agree that Stalin set about them as a means of preserving his autocratic powers. Between 1936 and 1939, at least 750,000 people were executed or banished to the labor camps. Anyone who opposed Stalin publicly, or was unfortunate enough to be caught denouncing him privately, was purged—military officers, high-ranking politicians or economists, artists and intellectuals, and political dissenters.
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