Readers Write In #109: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 6 – Stalin’s Era Part Five

Posted on November 3, 2019


(by G Waugh)

Introduction, Preface, and Chapter 1 are here.

Chapter 2 is here.

Chapter 3 is here.

Chapter 4 is here.

Chapter 5 is here.

The end of the Second World War and the massive victories achieved by the USSR had helped boost the prestige of the Union as well that of its ruler. The public mood, by and large was celebratory and the people were relieved that the three-year long war which had taken a devastating toll on human lives and resources had finally ended. Russia was able to annex a lot of territories from various European countries and Stalin foisted Communist Governments in some countries like Poland while he was happy to see a few like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia turning Communist out of their own volition. Yugoslavia had fought on the side of the Allies led by the valiant Joseph Broz Tito against the Axis Powers and immediately after the war the charismatic Marshal took over the reins of the country with widespread public support and limited Soviet help. The Baltic countries were also brought under Soviet influence and almost every ruling Communist Party had to report to Stalin on almost all key internal affairs.

Russians, for generations together are often believed to prefer iron fisted rulers over soft ones and hence submission to Stalin’s autocracy, according to a few historical accounts, was treated by the populace as a way of paying obeisance to their Holy Fatherland. When Russia was pulled into ‘The Great Patriotic War’ in 1942, Stalin’s abrupt move to reinstate the legacies of some of Tsarist Russia’s erstwhile rulers was met with rousing patriotism and heroic fervor among the masses. The State propaganda machines invoked the achievements of Peter The Great and other legendary Tsars and loud calls to restore the Great Russian Pride were issued relentlessly. Stalin also ensured that a broad base of public support was achieved at this time of crisis by promptly relaxing restrictions on free speech and practice of religion. Thousands of prisoners were released from concentration camps and were expected to enlist in the army while Catholic Churches were summoned to align themselves with the State’s war effort. Stalin’s tactics at the time of national emergency, needless to say bore fruit and it is very much to the credit of the average Russian soldier that the looming Fascist pestilence was eradicated once and for all from everywhere around the world (except in Spain). People, in return naturally expected permanent withdrawal of repressive measures along with concrete steps by the State towards betterment of their living conditions. But what happened later was just quite the opposite.

Tito wags the middle finger:
Marshal Tito, right from the installation of the Communist Republic in Yugoslavia in 1945 was averse to the overbearing attitudes of Soviet Russia and was bent on taking an independent line. He also tried to split the Communist Bloc and form a separate federation in order to countervail excessive Russian interference. When civil war broke out in Greece in 1946, Tito much to the chagrin of the USSR sent troops of his own accord, to aid the Grecian Communist camp while Stalin due to a compact with Western Powers had promised them neutrality in this case and had prevailed over other East European republics as well to remain silent. Stalin had also planted informers inside the Yugoslavian Communist Party but Tito didn’t think twice before finding and eliminating them. Tito even before his victorious military campaign against the Axis, had enjoyed great popularity among his countrymen and hence had very little necessity of Moscow’s assistance to retain power.

Tito’s insubordination to Stalin led to expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Communist International (Comintern) in 1948 (until the rupture was healed in 1955 under a different Soviet leadership). However Stalin was worried too much about Tito setting ‘an unhealthy precedent’ for other satellite countries to follow, that he even made unsuccessful arrangements for an invasion of Yugoslavia by the end of the 1940s. Stalin’s insecurity is apparent in one of the letters Tito wrote to the former, which goes as follows:

‘Dear Stalin, stop sending your men to kill me. I have captured five of them. If I send one to kill you, there won’t be need for a second’.

Russians return to ‘normalcy’:

The Russian citizens on the other hand were to witness something that they had least expected. Stalin shocked everyone by ordering demotion and transfer of successful war-time military heads of the Red Army to other less powerful areas and resumed the ‘purges’ for which he was so notorious for. Sizes of concentration camps were restored almost to their pre-war levels and civil rights were curbed once again. The masses were exhorted to work longer hours and factories were set impossible targets in order to resuscitate the war-ravaged economy.

Stalin, however, was slowly receding from the centre-stage owing to age related illnesses from late 1940s and other leaders started helping him manage daily affairs. China meanwhile had succeeded in becoming Communist under the dynamic leadership of Mao Zedong with strong support from the Soviet Union. The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 and was expected to join the bandwagon of Soviet’s satellite countries soon. However, Moscow was to realise shortly that Mao was not to be taken lightly.

With the Korean War drawing to a stalemate in 1953, Josef Stalin, a few months before the Korean armistice was signed, breathed his last on 5th March at the age of 74. Stalin was buried alongside founder Patriarch Vladimir Lenin at the famous Lenin’s Mausoleum on 9th March in the presence of leaders from various Soviet satellite states. Many countries condoled the passing away of the Soviet leader and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru struck a sombre note in his speech to the Parliament, heaping accolades on one of the most paradoxical leaders of history.

‘Anyhow a very great figure has passed away. He was, I believe, technically not the head of the Soviet State – we make reference to the passing of high dignitaries and especially heads of State – but Marshal Stalin was something much more than the head of a State. He was great in his own right way, whether he occupied the office or not’.

Russians heave a sigh:

Josef Stalin, the Georgian revolutionary-turned dictator had no doubt, left Soviet Union many times stronger and more influential in global affairs than it was when he took over. It is solely to the credit of that man, the son of a poor cobbler, that the Union survived for as long as it did. Even if we idealists like to assume quite often that coercion and fear alone cannot sustain empires for long, Stalin’s case of a tremendously successful ‘rule by decree’ lasting over three tumultuous decades, it must be admitted, keeps challenging our notions and beliefs.

But a shift in perspective may offer some clarity to evaluate Stalin’s role in Russian history. The rise of the USSR as a superpower at the end of the Second World War, though a phenomenal achievement given its horrible treatment at the hands of the Western powers, was brought about solely by coercion and terror. Millions of workers were made to toil for more than twelve hours a day and thousands died due to overwork and terrible working conditions. Famines due to forced collectivisation, outdated farming practices, distribution chain mismanagement and most importantly wilful neglect of public welfare killed close to 20 million people. Millions had to endure hellish conditions in concentration camps and not even half of those are estimated to have survived. Common citizens had to live their lives under constant surveillance and perennial fear since they could sense the guillotine that was hanging above their heads following them wherever they went.

On the other hand, Soviet bureaucracy while being servile and sycophantic to Stalin enjoyed numerous benefits and succeeded more often than not in getting around the law. Their tyranny on the common people was unchallenged as long as they dutifully toed the party line. Even when Stalin was informed about the excesses of the bureaucracy, there seems to be no record of any punitive orders issued from the top.

The party which initially grew on Marxist theories, during the Tsar era had a lot of intellectuals in its ranks whose influence never allowed concentration of power in a few hands. But ever since Lenin took over Russia, the party gradually started losing its democratic character at the altar of discipline and patriotism. With the ascent of Stalin, Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’ which emphasised the superior character of the party leadership (Politburo) over others, was to be rigorously applied. As the years passed, even the Politburo lost its decision making powers and handed its keys to the General Secretary of the CPSU, once and for all. Lack of checks and balances in administration naturally led to rash and adventurous decision making and when the results turned out to be disastrous, the State immediately made quixotic U-turns committing
even more blunders during its retreat. Stalin justified his wrongs whenever they were out in the open, as ‘necessary destruction’ that would only help the country’s progress in the long run.

If Fascism emphasized racial superiority to justify brutalities such as ethnic cleansing, Stalinism bred on its own groundless infallibility myths and rationalised wanton violence and wilful man-slaughter. As Communism spread across the world in the second half of the 20th century, Stalinism would find its devilish alter-egos in poorer countries such as China, Cambodia, etc. But the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, after the demise of Stalin did not continue to be intransigent and arrogant as was expected. In 1956, at a time when the rest of the World had yet no inkling of what was transpiring in the USSR, a 60 year-old former military chief at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow, would stun the world with a shattering revelation:

‘Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed these concepts or tried to prove his [own] viewpoint and the correctness of his [own] position was doomed to removal from the leadership collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. This was especially true during the period following the 17th Party Congress, when many prominent Party leaders and rank-and-file Party workers, honest and dedicated to the cause of Communism, fell victim to Stalin’s despotism’.

The speech titled ‘On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences’ delivered by the First Secretary of the CPSU, the de-facto leader of the USSR would mark a new departure in the history of the Empire. Nikita Khrushchev, a veteran who had led the famous defense of Stalingrad during the Great Patriotic War, had assumed power on 14th September 1953 becoming only the fourth leader to head the Union**. Khrushchev, in retrospect, appears to be the first leader of the USSR who had more scruples than arrogance, more sincerity than dogmatism and most important of all, a genuine willingness to admit failure and learn from mistakes. That singular attitude, prompted him to deliver that epoch-making address that unravelled his predecessor publicly to the world, and bore testimony to his commitment to righteousness unmindful of the perilous consequences that were soon to follow.

**Malenkov served as an interim ruler during a turbulent power struggle after Stalin’s demise.