Readers Write In #99: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 2 – Stalin’s Era Part 1

Posted on September 28, 2019


(by G Waugh)

Introduction, Preface, and Chapter 1 are here.

The ascent of the Strongman:

The death of the founder patriarch Vladimir Lenin, did jolt the Soviet people even though it was very well known that he was bedridden for months. Lenin’s New Economic Policy introduced in 1921 a few months before his death, had to a very considerable extent mollified the disenchanted people who had been deprived of their basic human rights. The NEP, as it was called, encouraged private ownership of land and market pricing of their grain which in turn provided the farmers with strong initiative to employ new methods of farming and increase production. The increased food production helped mitigate food shortages and famines which indirectly neutralised the rebellious instincts of the masses. People were slowly getting used to yet another form of authoritarian leadership but they still sincerely believed that better futures lay in store for them.

The death of Lenin, indeed had created a great vacuum at the highest level of the Soviet leadership and observers abroad were hurriedly drafting their celebratory obituaries for the short lived revolution. Lenin during his last few years had preferred Josef Stalin, one of his close confidantes during the revolutionary years, to succeed him, but soon began to waver from his position for multiple reasons. Stalin was known to be ruthless and scheming during his stint with the government and had alienated a lot of party founders with his intolerant attitude. Leon Trotsky, another long time associate of Lenin was a strong contender for the position of Lenin’s successor. Some more names were also in contention soon after Lenin’s death which ultimately triggered an intense power struggle within the party.

Josef Stalin known for his skill in manipulation and political manoeuvring, finally emerged successful at the end of the struggle. Stalin, unlike his successors was a ruler who assumed power with a clear vision for Soviet Russia and hence in many ways served the primary purpose of consolidating Communist power over its vast, diverse landscape. Stalin, to start with, successfully solved the problem of multiple nationalities vying against one another for supremacy by implementing in practice with considerable success, Lenin’s all-inclusive theory of nationalism. Many languages belonging to various communities were given preference in school curriculum as well in administrative affairs. The effectiveness of this policy in cementing the various nationalities into the broad Communist bloc cannot be underestimated.

‘War Communism’ (discussed in the previous chapter) introduced by Lenin only on an emergency basis, was institutionalised under Stalin and in fact, further intensified all over the Union. This doctrine with a few more inputs from Stalin came to be known as ‘Marxism-Leninism’. Marx who envisioned ‘collective form of property’ for the Communist future believed only in an evolutionary form of societal development, which meant society relieving itself from the chains of feudalism, moving slowly into capitalism and hence towards unsustainable inequality which in turn would pave the way for State Socialism finally culminating in what is called Stateless Communism. Lenin too, during his time as a revolutionary, had analysed the Russian feudal conditions and theoretically dismissed the chances for a Communist Revolution in the country. Even Marx a few decades before Lenin, expected a Communist Revolution in the near future, only in an industrialised country like Germany or Britain and not certainly in a backward, underdeveloped and feudal Russia. But what happened in Russia in 1917 was a curious combination of factors that was milked to the extreme by a shrewd Marxist politician in Lenin, as a result of which the Communists came to power all over Eastern Europe. More about this phenomena will be discussed later.

Forced collectivisation and its impact:

Stalin was too impatient to allow Russia to pass through its Marxist ‘evolutionary’ phases and hence decided to force Communism down the throats of the unwilling populace. Lands that were distributed by Lenin to peasants during the early days of the Soviet government, were decreed to be ceded to the State along with other private property. Farmers were totally unwilling to let the State take over their lands and possessions as a result of which there was a spike in the number of rebellions and unrests by late 1930s. These disturbances were ruthlessly suppressed by Stalin’s powerful machinery and Siberian concentration camps were allowed to burgeon to unprecedented sizes. Secret police who came to be known as KGB later, roamed all over the country and any signs of dissent or protest were prematurely identified and suitably eliminated. Another group encouraged by Stalin was the Communist Youth League which was full of young ‘radicals’ whose main duty was assisting the police in weeding out dissent. Fear spread all over the country and people stopped discussing politics in public places fearing retribution.

However the most important outcome of collectivisation was a steep fall in agricultural output and rampant starvation and shortages all over the Union. Farmers were not willing to toil for pittances and were indignant with the State for diverting a large portion of the agricultural output towards cities and industrial towns. Stalin right from the beginning was very anxious to build Russia’s image for the West, as a rapidly industrialising country all set to overtake its capitalist competitors. Even though Stalin succeeded in industrialising Russia through steel and armament industries, the human and economic cost incurred was massive and largely avoidable. Ukraine lost almost 3 million people in 1933 to man made famines and poverty. Stalin on the other hand was using everything in his power to sustain his image through State propaganda tools such as radio and the press. Russia was portrayed to its people and outside as a nation on the cusp of a major Communist transformation, which polarised opinion in the depression-hit capitalist countries.

More about Russia’s instrumental role in indirectly influencing the politics of other countries will be seen in the upcoming chapters.

Fascism and Russia:

Just like how Communist Russia was influencing the depression-hit Capitalist West, the rise of Hitler in Germany sent shudders throughout the world. Marxist historians rightly called ‘Fascism’ the most advanced stage of Laissez Faire Capitalism where all relics of bourgeois liberalism and democracy are blown to smithereens. Hitler strongly polarised opinions all over the world leading to fascist movements in Spain, Poland, Japan, etc.

Fascism in Europe was thoroughly anti Semitic and Jews all over the world were viewed with suspicion and fear. Blacks in the US were similarly ill treated especially when the economic depression was at its peak.

People all over the recession-hit countries started looking for economic alternatives both in Germany and Russia. People stopped believing in parliamentary democracy and waited for the emergence of strong, charismatic leaders and individuals who could make decisions on their own. This was also the time when the Communist Parties in Western countries began to gather enormous mass support and therefore threatened the electoral hegemony of the hitherto dominant centrist forces. These Communist parties were part of a Communist International led by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (RSDLP was rechristened CPSU by Lenin in 1918 itself) and directly reported to Josef Stalin in various periodic conferences. The political lines to be adopted in their respective countries were dictated by Stalin and his coterie, and any deviation by the domestic leadership was dealt with severely. As a result, these parties sang paeans to Communist Russia and its industrial achievements and promised people with a radical left wing alternative to all their economic problems.

Russia, in turn led the anti Fascist bloc while the Soviet press vilified Hitler and his policies and kept people aware of the ever-present threat of fascism. When liberal democratic leaders in various countries like Britain, US and France were trying to appease Hitler and moderate his ambitions, Stalin’s Russia kept showing a virtual middle finger to the Fascist bloc. Stalin was continuously sending feelers to the Western countries to form an official United Front against Hitler but was snubbed time and again. Intellectuals all over the world were impressed with the theoretical soundness of Marxist analysis of Fascism and were impelled to join newly mushrooming Fascist Resistance movements in their respective countries. In many ways, the fact that Communists and left wing radicals spearheaded the International Resistance movements against fascism is beyond doubt.

Spanish Civil War and Russia:

In 1936, a broad left wing coalition government headed by the Spanish Communists won the elections in Spain. Fearing communist expansion to other neighbouring areas, Hitler helped the Spanish General Francisco Franco to stage a military coup against the democratically elected government. The military coup was successful and a fascist government under Franco was about to be installed. This triggered protests all over Spain and the rest of the world which soon transformed into what is known as the Spanish Civil War of 1936. The Spanish Communist party, the Trotskyist party (POUM) along with other left wing parties at one end (known as Republicans) supported by thousands of civilians from across the world and the Spanish Nationalist Army supported by Hitler and Mussolini at the other end (Nationalists) entered into a direct armed conflict. Stalin felt compelled to support the Spanish Communist cause and sent a section of his Red Army to fight against the fascist Nationalist Army.

Soon the ‘Big Brother’ attitude of the Soviet Union came to the fore as the Red Army demanded the rest of the Republican troops to subordinate to them for strategic purposes. The Spanish Republicans submitted reluctantly but the Russian Red Army committed numerous strategic errors resulting in a number of Republican deaths. Also the Red Army reporting directly to Stalin was always suspicious of POUM cadre for their Trotskyist leanings. Soon tensions began to surface and the Republican camp was rent with virtual infighting.

This made the numerically inferior Nationalist camp powerful than its Republican opponent and by the end of 1939, General Franco and his troops managed to defeat the Republicans. Franco immediately ordered the purging of thousands of Republican sympathisers in Spain, and the peninsula remained fascist till his death in 1975.

Aftermath of the Spanish Civil war:

The victory of the Republicans in the Spanish parliamentary elections in 1936 had given hopes to millions of people across Europe who were afraid of the impending Fascist danger. Hitler wanted to annexe the whole of Europe and hence supported General Franco’s troops, in order to incorporate Spain into his Fascist bloc. The Republican side led by Communists generated great sympathy from all parts of the world including India which provided medical and financial aid under the supervision of Jawaharlal Nehru. Civilians from England, France and some communist countries joined the Republican cause and sacrificed their lives willingly. More importantly, Stalin’s Russia helped in consolidating support for Spain from all over the world, as a result of which the USSR seized the moral higher ground for a while. The military assistance from USSR was immense and during the early days of the war, intellectuals began to view Stalin sympathetically.

Petty internal ideological clashes, overbearing attitude of Soviet soldiers towards their Spanish comrades, Stalin’s apathy towards providing aid to Spain in the key phases of the war were some of the factors that led to the defeat of the Republican side. The Spanish debacle ended up severely damaging the morale of the International (Anti Fascist) Resistance movement which soon were to face another blow in the form of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939.

To know more about Spanish Civil War:

  1. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
  2. Land and Freedom (1995) film by Ken Loach.
  3. The God That Failed book by Louis Fischer.
  4. The Rise and Fall of Communism book by Archie Brown.