Readers Write In #104: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 4 – Stalin’s Era Part 3

Posted on October 11, 2019

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(by G Waugh)

Introduction, Preface, and Chapter 1 are here.

Chapter 2 is here.

Chapter 3 is here.

Josef Stalin, when he assumed the mantle in 1922 was initially considered to be a worthy successor to the legacy of the founder-leader Vladimir Lenin, by the masses. Stalin worked hard to build on that image and tried to establish a cult of personality everywhere in and around Russia. State media were ordered to sing paeans to Stalin and his persona while it was also true that the masses did buy that ‘image’ obediently. Communist parties of other countries, affiliated to the Communist International were also forced to bow before Stalin’s supremacy and dissidents were expelled, even if their sincerity to the movement was beyond doubt.

But Stalin, just like any other dictator had plenty of insecurities. Having undergone the rigmaroles of intra-party power struggles himself, Stalin was uncomfortable at the thought of having to encounter political manipulators (like him) and popular revolutionaries who may, at an unexpected point of time, given the lack of proper intra party democracy, stake their claim to leadership. Also, Stalin’s obsession with immediate results with respect to economy which might validate his political superiority began to have totally unforeseen and sickening consequences. When Stalin ordered forced collectivisation of agriculture, peasants who received land during Lenin’s NEP started rebelling. Rebellions spread throughout Russia which only ended up evoking even more repressive measures from the State. Soon, thousands of farmers were sent to Siberian concentration camps where they were left to toil all day and freeze to death. Within a couple of years, the consequences of forced collectivisation were felt all over the country with thousands dying from food shortages and inhuman working conditions.

The ruling Communist Party which still had a healthy number of selfless and devoted founder-members in its ranks, was beginning to crack apart. Stalin’s policies came up for discussion during party meetings and scathing accusations were hurled up against him by party factions led by Leon Trotsky. Nikolai Bukharin, another popular founder-member now in Stalin’s camp was soon to join the opposition. With a large number of popular leaders rallying against Stalin, what he did next to retain power, was virtually unparalleled in its brutality and scale, by any other event in human history so far.

The Party starts feeding upon itself:

1933 was the year when Stalin personally ordered the execution of Sergei Kirov, his close associate and a powerful bureaucrat. This was followed by a series of executions of all popular leaders who refused to toe the line of Stalin. Thousands of party leaders, workers and intellectuals who had given up all their personal ambitions for witnessing the creation of Communist Russia during their lifetime were officially declared ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and hence executed immediately.

Soon the purge extended into other domains as well – scientists, artists, teachers, military personnel, union leaders, bureaucrats, engineers who were suspected of anti-Stalinism were found and weeded out. Even people who had been previously associated with Trotsky but had later switched camps were not excluded. A work of art which had no reference to the ‘glory of the Revolution’, a valid scientific argument that ran counter to the government’s policy, an article in the newspaper that sounded like admiring the West were enough and sufficient evidences as to warrant trial and persecution. Most of the Communist leaders were subjected to physical and mental torture and were forced to sign ‘voluntary’ confessions of having indulged in ‘acts of treason and sabotage’. Eric Hobsbawm, a left wing British historian in one of his essays mentions that due to both man-made starvation and Stalin’s purges, the annual growth rate of the entire Soviet Population itself fell drastically during the 1930s and took some years to rebound.

Leon Trotsky who managed to escape Soviet Russia, after a number of years of active political life in the West was assassinated in Mexico in 1940. By the end of 1938, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had been wiped clean of Stalin’s detractors and even of those few who had some independent line of reasoning. Stalin brought some more amendments to the Soviet constitution so as to make him the most powerful leader in the whole of the Union. Vesting almost all decision making powers into the position of the General Secretary of the CPSU would have telling consequences in the future including that of the downfall of the Soviet Union itself.

Stalin joins Hitler’s party:

Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939 which invited both England and France into World War. Poland fell within a few weeks and the Soviet Union was invited to share the spoils, according to various secret clauses in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. Baltic countries such as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were also soon annexed by Soviet forces aided by the Nazi troops. Soon the Soviet Union and the Nazis signed a bilateral trade agreement which promised mutual exchange of food, consumer durables and military equipment during the course of the war.

The Russo- Nazi joint action in Europe was a terrible embarassment for Communist parties world over which have been so far, steadfast and single-minded in their opposition to Fascism. However, the parties were not ready to alienate Soviet help for their local activities and hence decided to toe Stalin’s line dutifully. A large number of influential economists and intellectuals all over Europe quit the Communist party during this time as more atrocities were about to follow.  The KGB officials handed a lot of German communists who were hitherto given political asylum in USSR to the German State Police in adherence to certain secret statutes in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

By 1940, Germany and USSR had grown so close to each other that the former invited the latter to join the Axis Powers and fight the West as a single cohesive bloc. But the Soviet Union was, in parallel on a rampage over its erstwhile territories (of the Tsarist era) annexing Finland and marauding Romania all of which made Hitler feel a bit uneasy. Also there were several disagreements over demarcation in the captured territories between Nazi and Red Army chiefs which, however were mutually agreed to be put to rest for the time being.

The beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler:

Hitler right from his days as a street politician harboured a grudge towards Communists and Slavs. In his autobiography Mein Kampf, he had written about his dreams of bringing the whole of Russia under Aryan rule. As soon as he assumed power, his first target were the Communists followed by the Jews and other ‘inferior’ races like the Slavs. Even if Hitler busied himself with efforts to pay Britain and France in the same coin for their collusive efforts in humiliating Germany through the Versailles, Soviet Russia was always at the back of his mind.

But nothing emboldened him to attack Russia in 1941 itself as much as his massive military victories over Poland, Denmark, Belgium, Norway and Luxembourg. Most importantly, Hitler was overjoyed when Nazi troops along with those of Italy, conquered France within just 46 days of combat. By December 1940, just within less than one and a half years of the start of the Great War, Germany had managed to bring more than half of Western Europe under its thumb.

Hitler’s prestige soared all over Nazi Germany and he was considered the true successor to the glorious legacy of the erstwhile Reich Empire. Till 1940, Hitler had defied a lot of advice given by his military generals and easy, continuous victories did a great deal to bolster his confidence. His complacency was soon on display in the beginning of 1941 when he was poring over Germany’s plans to attack the Soviet Union. Hitler was right in assuming that Stalin had purged a majority of his top military personnel in the 1930s itself and hence had to rely on inexperienced officials in the event of a war. Hitler also looked at the very slow progress made by the Red Army against the supposedly weak Finns during the Winter War of 1939-40 and felt that he could safely rely on the ineptitude of the Soviet military machine in his plans to advance his attack on the Soviet Union, at least by a year.

Hitler also believed that Russians were terribly oppressed by Stalin and his pliant bureaucracy and hence a German invasion would possibly be welcomed by the impoverished masses as a means towards their liberation. He is supposed to have remarked to his colleagues, ‘We will just kick the door of the house and I am sure the whole structure will come down!’

Stalin on the other hand, ignored warnings emanating from Britain and his own secret service about an impending Nazi invasion in mid 1941 and strongly believed that Hitler would not be ready to open a war on two fronts simultaneously. Hitler meanwhile was mobilising his troops for a war against Russia which he wanted to be unprecedentedly barbaric in its ruthlessness, violating all codes of warfare. Just like how the Nazis had exterminated more than a million Poles as soon as they occupied Poland, the Wehrmacht (Unified armed forces of Germany) were instructed to be equally brutal on Russian civilians and to loot all their material possessions in order to support further Nazi advance.

Hitler coined a new name for his campaign against Russia, ignoring crucial warnings by his generals on climate and logistics, and launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941.