There are fewer figures of the twentieth century that have achieved as much infamy and scholastic interest as Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin. Stalin’s legacy is well documented as he carried out, in the face of overwhelming opposition and steep odds, an unprecedented economic revival of the Soviet Union and elevated it to the level of an international superpower. However, Stalin’s road to economic prosperity was leaden with the blood, sweat, and tears of people of Russia and its satellite states. At his core Stalin was a paradoxical character: He was simultaneously both an emancipator and a tyrant who dominated his people through fear; a man stoutly devoted to his ideals, yet a ruthless dictator who willingly bent said ideals to suit his needs of the time. Debates continue over the positives and negatives of Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union and this poses the question that has stood since his death in 1953: Was Stalin a creator of nations or their destroyer?
Before delving into this debate it is important to establish the historiography that has emerged around Stalin during his reign. The Soviet Union under Stalin was notoriously secretive and historians before the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’ of the late 1950s had limited access to analytical material. Contemporary historians such as Merle Fainsod lamented the lack of primary source material and were left to speculate on the circumstances behind Russia’s emergence as the superpower to rival the United States of America. During the loosening of Soviet secrecy and emergence of new social sciences in the western world certain viewpoints of the subject began to gain notoriety. At first from the right wing came traditional historians such as Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes with the belief that the Soviet Union and by an extension Marxism-Leninism is inherently flawed and incapable of reformation or redemption. In response to their studies the left wing produced historians such as Stephen Cohen and Shelia Fitzpatrick who launched a ‘revisionist’ critique of the topic for in their eyes the study of the Soviet Union had been warped by the ideologies of the west. While the revisionist cause gained ground in academic circles as new social sciences such as cultural history emerged in the 1960s and 1970s the case of the traditionalists is no less relevant than it was during conception; both points of view have helped illustrate a picture of Soviet history that was initially devoid of detail.
Despite the Bolsheviks seizing power in 1917 from Tsar Nicholas II and promising to usher in the new and prosperous future of socialism almost a decade later the remnants of the Russian Empire remained in a state of economic stagnation and technological backwardness. Four years after the revolution and in the aftermath of the subsequent civil war Vladimir Lenin initiated the ‘New Economic Policy’ (NEP) in 1921. The central feature of the NEP was, despite going against Marxist doctrine, giving individual peasants the right to sell their products freely and to gain personal capital. Presented in the guise of state capitalism Lenin intended the NEP as means of generating much needed wealth for the Russian economy.
Shortly after Stalin assumed power he scrapped the NEP in favour of his ‘Five Year Plan’. Anne Applebaum believes that the decision Stalin made to put into action the first Five Year Plan in 1928 is one that would ultimately define the pre-war Soviet Union as a period of “extremely – almost hysterically – rapid industrialization”. Her belief poses another question though: Why did Stalin cast aside the NEP for the Five Year Plan in the first place, and was it a good idea? According to economic historians Robert Davies, Mark Harrison, and Stephen Wheatcroft the initiation of the Five Year Plan by Stalin was not only a good idea, it was essential to escape the Malthusian trap that Russia was caught in. Malthusian traps occur when industrial technologies in countries are inadequate to facilitate increases in wealth and in living standards despite population continuing to grow. This was the situation Russia found itself in during the early twentieth century: it was lagging behind the western world in industry and needed to catch up in order to advance practically all aspects of its society. Martin McCauley adds to the picture by claiming that the NEP itself was a “step backwards for the party” and that it was despised by the rank-and-file of the party for being antithetical to what they saw as true communism.
Despite the Five Year Plan bringing phenomenal industrial and economic advances its potential as being a positive legacy of Stalin and a signifier that he was a maker of nations is questionable because it, like the man himself, was ultimately paradoxical in practice. Collectivization, initiated in 1928, was a necessary element of the Five Year Plan and resulted in widespread suffering unprecedented in the history of the region. The aim of collectivization was to consolidate the farming land owned by peasants into collective farms (kolkhoz) that the state thought they could put to better use and increase productivity on. During the course of this policy hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes across the Soviet Union and just as many if not more were sent to labour camps known as Gulags or to work. At the time the party claimed that collectivization was necessary to fuel the rapidly expanding industrial sector and to bolster harvests but historians have put forward several convincing arguments suggesting that there were ulterior motives at work during this period of turmoil.
Revisionist historian Ronald Suny raises the idea that part of Stalin’s reasoning behind collectivization was that he was extremely paranoid of the Soviet peasantry; seeing them as potential upstarts and revivers of capitalism. According to Suny’s thesis, aptly named the “War on the Peasants”, collectivization was not a solution to just the one problem of grain yields, rather it was a punitive measure intended to strip Stalin’s potential enemies of the means to challenge him in the event of unrest. Considering that the Soviet population of the time was overwhelmingly rural Suny’s implications may not be far removed from reality. It could therefore be argued that the policy of aggressive collectivization was as much, if not more, a political manoeuvre as it was an economic policy. Christopher Ward adds to Suny’s thesis by suggesting that Stalin was specifically concerned about the better-off peasants, the land owning peasants whom the state would later come to categorise as the ‘kulaks’ for they posed the greatest threat as potential ring-leaders for organized peasant resistance to collectivization. This is the view also built upon by Robert Conquest who implies that ‘dekulakization’ and ‘collectivization’ were “essentially the same thing”. The estimated cost to human life through the brutal process of collectivization varies greatly. It is estimated that the number of people killed as a result of famine induced by collectivization ranges between four and eleven million people. Traditionalists such as Conquest put this figure even higher, in excess of twenty million people. It seems likely that the collective viewpoint constructed that Stalin feared an uprising from his own peasantry, not just within Russia but also from the satellite states of the Soviet Union, is accurate. However, Stalin’s position was unenviable in this case as Sheila Fitzpatrick articulately summarizes that he was stuck between the “Scylla” of the traditional Russia and the “Charybdis” of the new industrialized Russia.
Although collectivization enveloped numerous nations within the Soviet Union historians, politicians, and human rights activists have drawn attention to a particularly horrific chapter of the collectivization period that took place in Ukraine: The Holodomor or the “Death by Hunger”. The Holodomor is the name given to a devastating famine which stuck the Ukrainian SSR between 1932 and 1933, a famine which claimed scores of innocent lives and utterly shattered Ukrainian nationhood. The circumstances, motivations, and events within and around the Holodomor are extremely controversial and continue to have a significant impact on the world of today; although this has not stopped opposing schools of academic and historical thought from locking horns over the topic. Robert Conquest argues that industrialisation was a key cause of the famine but implies that Stalin had the means and resources to prevent or at least mitigate the toll of the famine but chose not to. Economic historian Stephen Wheatcroft collaborates this view but does not concede that the Holodomor was deliberately instigated by Stalin.
For decades the true circumstances surrounding the Holodomor remained a mystery to western scholarship as evidence was buried by Soviet propaganda. However, as new evidence and testimonials came to light historians began to reconsider what the motivating factors were behind Stalin seemingly instigating the Ukrainian famine. Conquest’s viewpoint on the subject of the Holodomor is that it was an attack on Ukrainian nationalism because it was premeditated by Stalin; demonstrated by the fact that he took meticulous care to subvert the ‘intelligentsia’, the head and mind of the nation, before initiating the famine to crush the peasantry of the nation into submission. Hiroaki Kuromiya suggests another, deeper-seated, reason behind Stalin’s desire to crush the Ukrainian sense of nationality beyond mere pacification. Kuromiya claims that Ukraine was a thorn in Stalin’s side because it had a history of being a “problem republic” that, until the Holodomor, had stoutly resisted Soviet efforts of indigenization and collectivization. Kuromiya’s thesis bears some relevance in this case because if self-identity and nationalism within the Ukrainian SSR had managed to fully mature there is a good chance that it would have eventually sought sovereignty from the Soviet Union. Ukrainian nationalism flaring up so close to the motherland in the midst of a crucial time for Stalin’s policies would have been disastrous for the Soviet Union and would have marked a significant defeat for communism at a crucial juncture. The historiographical consensus on the Holodomor certainly implies that it was a deliberate attempt by Stalin to destroy the national identity of the Ukrainian SSR.
The 1930s was also the period in which Stalin took power away from regional leaders around the Soviet Union and consolidated personal control in Moscow. Purges were nothing new to the communist regime for the Bolsheviks had launched one in 1921 but this particular purge had different grounds and was certainly more intense. The Great Purge began in 1934 following the death of Sergei Kirov, a long standing associate of Stalin who had risen to become a regional head of the communist party in Leningrad. During the purge Stalin uprooted and disposed of vast swathes of party members and leaders, replacing them with people who would operate on his wavelength. Historians have however argued that there was greater motivation to the Great Purges than merely Kirov’s death. John Getty not only points to The Great Purge as being an indirect consequence of collectivization but also that it was a flashpoint for the communist party that had become overladen with various nationalities which had in turn resulted in severe polarization. As a left wing revisionist historian Getty focused his efforts on exploring the ethnic make-up of the party in 1934. Through his research he comes to the conclusion that the communist party in the 1930s was incredibly fragmented as a result of multiculturalism, especially in the caucuses and in Poland ; it was divided and suffered from paralysis on a regional level.
Robert Conquest weighs in on the topic of the ‘Great Terror’ and whilst not casting an entirely different picture to that of Getty certainly changes focus. Conquest pins the blame of the purges squarely on Stalin’s shoulders by pointing out his “notoriously suspicious nature” and paranoia that had only increased in potency as his years in office progressed. Conquest goes further in his character assassination of Stalin during the purge by somewhat, and remarkably, vindicating the actions of Vladimir Lenin in 1921 on the grounds that Lenin’s brand of terror born of the 1921 purge took place on the tail-end of years of civil war and unrest; whereas Stalin had utilized a purge to seize power in a time of relative domestic peace, initiating a “new cycle of suffering” to further his own agenda. Moreover, James Morris takes up a third viewpoint on the Great Purge by combining the viewpoints of both Getty and Conquest in saying that Stalin was indeed overly paranoid of an armed uprising from within his own ranks, an uprising in response to the deeply unpopular policy of collectivization among the rural workers and the general polarization of the party.
Whilst studies of the Great Purge and of Stalin have been overwhelmingly undertaken by western-based studies there are contemporary testimonies from those who lived through the events in the Soviet Union themselves, testimonies that only succeeded in seeing the light of day during the Khrushchev Thaw. One such testimony comes from the Georgian historian Roy Medvedev. Being a Marxist historian did not deter Medvedev from writing a scathing evaluation of Stalin, if anything it actually provided him with vitriol to expose Stalin as the antithesis of what true communism is as well as being a betrayer of Lenin and Marx’s legacies. Medvedev reinforces Conquest’s thesis that it was Stalin’s paranoia and ambition, not the machinations of the party that caused the Great Purge; that it was entirely premeditated and was meant to give him a “desired pretext” and a mandate to clear his path to absolute power. Medvedev’s testimony not only collaborates the view of traditionalist scholars it also implies that Stalin himself was responsible for the majority of the suffering inflicted upon his people within Russia and around the Soviet Union. Also, the fact that Medvedev’s work was both written by a native contemporary, let alone a Marxist, and then barred from publication in the Soviet Union, despite the party condemning Stalin’s actions after his death, speaks volumes about its legitimacy and implications. The Great Purge was the event which saw Stalin finally consolidate absolute power over the Soviet Union through a carefully planned campaign of terror and repression at the expense of the sovereignty of his people. Through this it can be said that Stalin not only destroyed the liberty of nations beyond his own through the Great Purge, but he did so to satisfy his own ambitions by establishing himself and by an extension Russia as the sole head of the entire multinational state – a move best summarized by his own infamous and, as ever, paradoxical quote “the people need a Tsar”.
Joseph Stalin’s health declined during the Second World War and he died in 1953 of a suspected stroke. His successor Nikita Khrushchev made an address to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 in which he denounced his predecessor as a tyrant and for his betrayal of Lenin’s legacy. The reasons behind Khrushchev’s address are debated as hotly as many other subjects concerning the Soviet Union are. However, it would seem likely that Khrushchev, seeing the new lands the Soviet Union had acquired during the closing stages of the Second World War, would have wanted to acknowledge the faults of his predecessor and take the Soviet Union in a new direction.
In light of the Five Year Plan, of collectivization, of the Holodomor, and of the Great Purge the encompassing question remains: Was Stalin the destroyer of nations or their maker? On the one hand it can be argued that Stalin brought many benefits to not only Russia but to the Soviet Union member states: industrialization, an unprecedented economic boom, almost doubling literacy rates, putting communist ideals of social equality into practice, and creating a superpower with the size and strength to stand up to capitalism. On the other hand however, one can argue that the positives of Stalin’s rule all come with strings attached: collectivization decimated entire rural communities, the Holodomor massacred millions, literacy meant seeing a distorted image of reality, and the people of the Soviet Union lost their sovereignty and national identities through an aggressive campaign of indigenization. One’s answer to the question will inevitably vary with national identity, school of thought, or political allegiance but through the cases studied and the viewpoints assessed Stalin ultimately emerges as a destroyer of nations: a paranoid tyrant who above all sought power and was not adverse to betraying the trust of his people and the promises of the 1917 revolution in order to achieve it. Stalin may well have had the interests of the Soviet Union at heart and did want it to prosper but his means of achieving his aims were leaden with human and cultural collateral damage. Apologist arguments for Stalin’s crimes and attempts to deflect the blame he is so often associated with lose ground in the face of the Soviet leadership denouncing him posthumously and in the light of evidence which came to light following the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. In his bid to create a multinational state in the form of the Soviet Union Stalin had to accept that he would have to become, and then surpass, that which he and his fellow revolutionaries had overthrown in order attain power in the first place: a personal ruler who destroyed the structure and the identity of other nations in order to bring them to heel through coercion and terror.
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