Stalinism in the inter-war USSR

Lenin's death in 1924 brought to power Joseph Stalin and the imposition of its Marxism-Leninism version as the official ideology in the USSR.
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Vincenzo Ferrillo

Vincenzo Ferrillo

01/07/2021 | Last update:


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The Soviet Union during the inter-war years

Stalinism was the Marxist-Leninist doctrine that Joseph Stalin imposed on the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death.

Political evolution of the USSR

The Russian Revolution of 1917 activated the forces opposed to the new Soviet regime, which quickly initiated a war against the Bolshevik government and the Red Army. The Russian Civil War began in November 1917, forcing the communist regime to take extraordinary measures to cope with it. This is why the first stage of the Soviet regime’s existence is associated with War Communism. When the war ended in 1921, the country was economically devastated.

Primary chronology

Russian Civil War (1917-1921)

The Russian Civil War was a conflict that pitted the new Soviet regime (Bolsheviks) against its opponents, united into the White Movement, which was an amalgam of Russian counter-revolutionary nationalist forces, in many cases favourable to the Tsar.

The nationalist camp also included some militants of left-wing parties such as the revolutionary socialists and Mensheviks.

Major counter-revolutionary events and leaderships:

The Red Army was led by Trotsky. The victory of the Red Army in the Civil War was due to the homogeneous bloc it created and the lack of unity of the enemy. Between 1920-1921 the Soviet regime won the war and in February 1921 invaded Georgia and reintegrated it into the regime.

El máximo dirigente del Ejército Rojo, Trotsky, durante la guerra
The supreme leader of the Red Army, Trotsky, during the war.

The consolidation of the communist regime

The war consolidated the new regime and shaped it. It also turned the regime into a one-party system (which Lenin had not envisaged), as during the war the Bolsheviks were left alone.

After the war, a communist one-party regime was definitively established. The war ruined the Soviet system, in which only communists participated. The Supreme Soviet continued to exist, but it was led exclusively by the Communist Party.

The one-party regime put in place a fundamental instrument of social control for the internal defence of the regime. It was not only a police instrument: the Cheka (1917-1922), OGPU (1922-1934), NKVD (1934-1954) and, finally, KGB (1954-1991). The secret police and intelligence services were the second most important institution in the country. It was the fundamental control arm of the new regime.

USSR economic policy

War communism

During the early years of the Soviet Union, as a result of the war, Lenin had to adopt special economic measures typical of a wartime economy:

Industry

Full nationalization of the enterprises. October 1917 saw the occupation of the enterprises by the workers. The discussion in the Communist Party was about how the collectivization of the enterprises should be carried out: whether directly by the workers and trade unions or by the state. In the end, it decided for nationalization. Military discipline was imposed on state-owned industry: a regime of hard labour to maintain the levels of production required by the war.

Agriculture

The great pledge of the Bolsheviks was the handing over of land to the farmers. Forced food requisitioning was imposed on them to supply the military at war. The peasantry retained ownership of the land, but it was the state that decided how much of the produce the peasants could keep and how much was requisitioned.

1919: The reappearance of an old system, the Prodrazvyorstka. It meant the confiscation of grain and other agricultural products from the peasants at nominal fixed prices according to specified quotas. This caused large peasant protests and local riots.

This untenable economic situation led to uprisings in the countryside (such as the Tambov Rebellion) as well as strikes and violent unrest in the factories.

March 1921: Kronstadt Rebellion. This was the last major rebellion against Bolshevik rule.

Fall in agricultural production (Table 1). 1920: Food catastrophe, which caused major famines in the main Soviet cities.

The 10th Communist Party Congress

10 Congreso Partido Comunista
10th Communist Party Congress
Lenin, Trotsky and Voroshilov (behind Lenin) with the delegates to the 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party, 1921.

The Communist Party held its 10th Congress from 8 to 16 March 1921, where important decisions were taken:

New Economic Policy (NEP): Economic policy rectification

Agriculture

End of forced confiscations and introduction of normal relations between farmers and the state. Payment of taxes from 1924 onwards in currency. Ratification of an agrarian structure based on land ownership: small, medium and large (Kulak, agrarian bourgeois).

Industry

De-state ownership of part of the enterprises, except foreign trade, the band and heavy industry, which remained in the hands of the state. The enterprises were not returned to their owners, but were given to the workers (enterprises with less than 50 workers). State enterprises were promised to organize themselves into groups of enterprises to act autonomously.

NEP abandoned the utopia of a currency-less state economy and the re-establishment of a partial market. Things went significantly better. The end of the implementation of the NEP was the death of Lenin and the beginning of an internal crisis in the Communist Party, not only over power but over the defence of the NEP or rectification. Reforms only in the economic field. The political system was never questioned.

Political and economic evolution in the NEP years

The Communist Party was not a homogeneous bloc. The Bolsheviks were not a united group, yet Lenin had been able to hold his own as leader. When he died, in 1924, an intense internal struggle to seize power erupted. There was also a struggle over the implementation of the NEP, especially in the urban industrial world, where it was imposing major dislocations.

Lenin. Estalismo
Picture of Lenin in his last months of life. He died on 17 January 1924.

The increase in unemployment was the result of the introduction of competitiveness criteria for companies, which led to the loss of jobs for the least qualified workers. The re-establishment of the market brought to the surface that of trade: corruption that directly affected the communist party.

Factions within the Party

Trotsky began to act against corruption, supporting those who criticized the NEP. Trotsky wanted to establish a programme which would revive the revolutionary movement and which would propose a leap towards an industrialized economy: the concept of permanent revolution. Isolated Soviet Russia had to accelerate the revolutionary process.

Against Trotsky’s proposals, the response of the communist party leadership was to reject this revolutionary tempo. What it had to be done, was to stabilize the economic situation and to build socialism in one country. For Nikolai Bukharin (right-wing opposition) it was necessary to introduce “socialism at a snail’s pace”.

Leadership fights in the USSR after Lenin’s death

1923-1925

First fight between the Left Opposition led by Trotsky and the leadership of the Communist Party. Trotsky lost (a superb biography by Isaac Deutscher is available). Trotsky was a newcomer to the Communist Party at the time of the 1917 Revolution. He had joined the party in April 1917, at the time of Lenin’s return for the second revolution. He then took over the command of the Red Army, though he never became a party man. Furthermore, he was not the most popular in the party or in Russia.

In 1925 Trotsky was politically defeated and forced to resign as war commissioner.

The winners were the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin triumvirate.

Trotsky, en el centro de la imagen, con otros miembros de la Oposición de Izquierda.  1927
Trotsky, in the centre of the picture, with other members of the Left Opposition. 1927.

1926-1927

The previous triumvirate of Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin broke up. The internal struggle continued with a new conflict between Grigory Zinoviev, Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin. Since 1919 Zinoviev had been president of the Third International, Stalin general secretary and Bukharin defender of the NEP.

Zinoviev raised the conflict over who should have the real power: the leader of the Communist International or the leader of the party that was part of the International. Trotsky joined the opposition group: “United Opposition“.

International context: In 1925 the USSR was again under threat. British Labour was in power, and Britain recognized the Soviet government. Economic relations began, although the MacDonald government fell and Baldwin suspended relations and broke off the flow of trade. This was seen by Stalin as a threat.

Stalin said against the United Opposition: “Russia must be defended against this united front, which unites Chamberlain with Trotsky”. The United Opposition was defeated. In 1927, Trotsky was banished to the Caucasus after calling for an illegal demonstration.

1927-1928

The NEP stagnated; it had produced good results in 1925-26, whereas in 1927-28 the economy was falling again. Criticism towards the peasantry, the kulaks, who were held responsible for the agrarian decline. Stalin decided to fight the final battle for complete control of power. Once the enemy was defeated, he took up his programme. Now, with agrarian stagnation, he understood that he had to adopt a new economic policy. Stalin-Bukharin confrontation.

Stalin con sus col·laboraors más estrechos Anastas Mikoyan y Sergo Ordzhonikidze a Tbilisi, 1925
Stalin with his closest collaborators, Anastas Mikoyan and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, in Tbilisi, 1925.

Stalin proposed the collectivization of the peasantry: the disappearance of the kulaks and their replacement by agrarian collectivization (state/agrarian cooperative, all in the hands of the state).

Stalin furthermore advocated the introduction of measures essential for an industrial acceleration programme. Accelerate the agrarian world by transferring labour from the countryside to the city. Presentation of the first five-year plan (1928-1932).

In December 1929 Bukharin was defeated and dismissed from the party.

Stalinism as a political system

Stalin, through the Five-Year Plan programme, revived the policies of war communism, which established the USSR as an emerging industrial power.

The success of the first Five-Year Plan made Stalin a popular leader, yet the political regime remained unchanged as a single party.

Stalin eliminated all internal dissent and relied on the OGPU (secret police) for all social control through coercion. He made the OGPU the main state institution, above the party and only below Stalin himself.

It was not until 1934 that the new political situation was implemented. The time of the mass terror of 1934 was coming.

Stalin’s great purges. The age of terror

The assassination of Sergei Kirov (one of the leaders of the revolution) served Stalin as a pretext for an escalation of repression against dissident elements in the Party, culminating in the Great Purge of the late 1930s during which many old Bolsheviks were arrested, expelled from the Party, and executed.

Stalin initiated a conspiracy against himself. Main enemy: Germany. Stalin accused Zinoviev‘s followers of murder. In 1936, the terror intensified. The Moscow Trials were a series of trials against Stalin’s political opponents:

El fiscal general Vyshinskiy (centro), leyendo la acusación, en 1937
Prosecutor General Vyshinskiy (centre), reading the indictment, in 1937.

Terror was not only a weapon of political repression, but also of economic repression. It accelerated the pace of production and work through the power of coercion. It made non-compliance with production rhythms a capital offence. Between 1937 and 1938, 1,500,000 people were arrested, 1,345,000 were sentenced and 51% of those prosecuted were executed.

In 1940, the USSR was an industrial power.


All articles of the course: Late modern History in Europe (19th and 20th Centuries)

Europe and the colonial world at the end of the 18th centuryThe Napoleonic era (1799-1815)The Congress of Vienna and the Restoration of the European orderSocial and economic changes on the 19th centuryLiberalism and nationalism in the 19th centuryThe Revolutions of 1820, 1830 and 1848The expansion of the great industrial capitalismBismarck’s Europe and the liberal nation-stateImperialism and colonial expansion in the 19th centuryWorld War I (1914-1918)Consequences of the First World WarThe new territorial map of interwar EuropeThe Revolutions of Russia (1917) and Germany (1918)The democracies of interwar Europe: Britain, France and GermanyFascism's rise to power in ItalyStalinism in the inter-war USSRThe revision of the Treaty of Versailles and the reopening of the conflict in EuropeWorld War II (1939-1945)

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