Stalin’s program was not achieved without opposition. The crisis of 1931 and 1932, when industrial goals were not being met and starvation swept the countryside, created discontent inside the regime as well as outside.
A few officials circulated memoranda advocating Stalin’s removal as general secretary, an act that the party had the right to perform. Stalin jailed them for conspiracy, and one leading Bolshevik committed suicide. Stalin’s second wife reproached him at this time for the ravages that the terror was working, and she, too, committed suicide in 1932.
Then, in December 1934, Sergei Kirov (1888-1934), who was rumored to be heir to Stalin’s position, was assassinated in Leningrad, probably on Stalin’s orders. Using Kirov’s death as an excuse, Stalin purged the party of his opponents, having hundreds of Soviets shot for alleged complicity in the killings and bringing his old colleagues Zinoviev and Kamenev to public trial in 1936. They and fourteen others either admitted involvement in Kirov’s death or signed confessions fabricated for them; they were executed.
In a second trial (1937), seventeen other leading Bolsheviks declared that they had knowledge of a conspiracy between Trotsky and the German and Japanese intelligence services by which Soviet territory was to be transferred to Germany and Japan. All were executed.
Then in June 1937 came the secret liquidation of the top commanders in the Red Army, who were accused of conspiring with “an unfriendly foreign power” (Germany) with a view to sabotage. All were executed after an announcement that they had confessed. The last of the public trials took place in March 1938, as twenty-one leading Bolsheviks, including Bukharin, confessed to similar charges and were executed.
But these public trials and the secret trial of the generals provide only a faint idea of the extent of the purge that was now transformed into the period known as the Terror. Every member of Lenin’s Politburo except Stalin and Trotsky either was killed or committed suicide to avoid execution. Two vice-commissars of foreign affairs and most of the ambassadors in the Soviet diplomatic corps, fifty of the seventy-one members of the Central Committee of the Communist party, almost all the military judges who had sat in judgment and had condemned the generals, two successive heads of the secret police, themselves the leaders in the previous purges, the prime ministers and chief officials of all the non-Russian Soviet republics—all were killed or vanished.
Not since the days of the witchcraft trials or of the Inquisition—and then not on so grand a scale—had the test of political and ideological loyalty been applied to so many people, and not since the days of the French Revolution had so many died for failing the test. Arrests multiplied tenfold in 1936 and 1937. Anything was used as an excuse for an arrest: dancing too long with a Japanese diplomat, buying groceries from a former kulak, not reporting an Armenian nationalist neighbor.
People simply went out to work one day and did not return—killed or sent to one of many huge anonymous prisons, or banished to Siberia. Most academicians and writers took for granted periods of exile and prison as natural parts of the rhythm of life. By 1938 at least 1 million Soviets were in prisons, some 8.5 million people had been arrested and most sent to prison camps and colonies, and perhaps 700,000 had been executed.
Stalin apparently wanted to destroy utterly all possibility of future conspiracies. So he trumped up charges against anyone who could conceivably become a member of a regime that might replace his own. Yet despite the purges the state did not break down. New Stalin-trained officials filled all top-level positions, and terror was enthroned as a principle of government, keeping all officials in constant fear for their lives and their jobs. In the end the purgers, too, were purged, used as scapegoats by Stalin for the Terror they had carried out at his command. Even Trotsky was pursued and killed. In August 1940 an assassin tracked Trotsky down to his refuge in Mexico and killed him with an ax.
In the midst of the Terror in 1936 Stalin proclaimed a new constitution. By its provisions no one was disenfranchised, as priests and members of the former nobility and bourgeoisie had previously been. Civil liberties were extended on paper, though they could be modified in the “interest of the toilers.” Because the USSR was a one-party state, elections were an expression of unanimity. The right to nominate candidates for the Supreme Soviet belonged to Communist party organizations, trade unions, cooperatives, youth groups, and cultural societies; but all were completely dominated by the party. The party picked the candidates, and no more than one for each post was presented to the voters. The party controlled the soviets, and the party hierarchy and government hierarchy overlapped and interlocked.
Every citizen could apply’ for membership in the party to a local branch, which voted on the application after a year of trial. Communist children’s organizations fed the youth groups, which in turn fed the party. The party was organized both territorially and functionally in pyramid form, with organizations at the bottom level in factory, farm, and government office. These were grouped together by rural or urban local units, and these in turn by regional and territorial conferences and congresses.
The party organizations elected the All-Union party congress, which selected the Central Committee of the party. The Central Committee selected the Politburo. At each level of the party pyramid there were organizations for agitation and propaganda (or “agitprop”), for organization and instruction, for military and political training. The party exercised nearly full control over the government.
The highest organ of the government was the Supreme Soviet, made up of two houses—a Soviet of the Union, based on population, and a Soviet of Nationalities, elected according to national administrative divisions. In theory the Supreme Soviet was elected for a term of four years. The Supreme Soviet itself did little; it appointed a presidium, which issued the decrees and carried on the work of the Supreme Soviet between sessions.
It also appointed the Council of Ministers (long called the Council of People’s Commissars). This cabinet, rather than the Supreme Soviet or its presidium, enacted most of the legislation and was thus both the legislative and the executive organ of the state. Stalin was chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars and of the Politburo, and general secretary of the Communist party. He was also commissar of defense, chief of the State Defense Council, which ran the country during wartime, and supreme military commander.
With the new constitution in place and Stalin’s enemies dead or intimidated, the late 1930s brought a softening of revolutionary fervor. Simultaneously with the purges and the new constitution, the bread ration was raised; individual farmers could own their homesteads; new medals and titles were awarded to leading workers in plants and to scientists, engineers, and military officers. In the Red Army, the traditional czarist distinctions between officers and men were restored, and marshals were named for the first time. The standard of living went up as the production of consumer goods was encouraged; and workers were invited to spend their earnings on small luxuries previously unavailable.
The early Bolsheviks had destroyed the old school system, abolished homework and examinations, and allowed children to administer the schools collectively’ with their teachers. Attendance fell off, the schools became revolutionary clubs of youngsters, and the training of teachers was neglected. The universities deteriorated, since anyone could enroll in them at age sixteen. Degrees were abolished, and technical training was stressed, to the exclusion of other subjects. Under NEP this chaotic situation was modified, and the basic problem of increasing literacy was tackled seriously. But the ordinary school curricula were replaced by heavy emphasis on labor problems and Marxist theory. The Communist party itself took over the universities, purged the faculties, and compelled the students to spend one week in three at work in factories.
But now this system again changed drastically. Training of teachers improved, their salaries were raised, and they were admitted to the civil service. The prerevolutionary system of admissions and degrees in the universities was restored, as was the prerevolutionary school curriculum. Emphasis on political education was reduced. and coeducation was abandoned. Tuition fees were restored for secondary schools making higher education difficult to obtain, except for children of the new elite or unusually talented students YY’ho won state scholarships. Literacy rose to about 90 percent.
Very reluctantly Stalin came last of all to modify the traditional communist position on religion. Militant atheism had been the policv of the early Bolsheviks. Behind their attitude lay more than the standard Marxist feeling that religion was the opiate of the masses; in Russia the Orthodox church had always been a pillar of czarism. Many years of attacks on religion, however, had failed to eradicate Orthodoxy from among the people.
When in 1937 Hitler built a Russian church in Berlin and took every occasion to speak kindly of the Orthodox church, Stalin had to respond. Declaring that Christianity had contributed to past Russian glory, the government abated its antireligious propaganda and permitted church attendance again. While the early revolutionaries had attacked the family as the backbone of the discredited social order, Stalin rehabilitated the sanctity of marriage and emphasized the family and its growth. The government lowered taxes on church property and appointed a new patriarch on whose subservience the regime could count.
Karl Marx, who had scorned and disliked Russia, would have been confounded had he lived to see that agricultural land, almost without a proletariat, produce the only major European communist revolution. Perhaps Marx was wrong, or perhaps what happened in Russia was not a Marxist revolution at all. It seems clear that Marx did not correctly estimate the revolutionary force latent in the Russian peasantry.
Since Marx died in 1883, he could not foresee the ultimate inadequacy of the czarist regime, the start of effective Russian industrialization, the extent of the tensions created by World War I, or the feebleness of the provisional government of 1917. But it also seems clear that, to bring the Bolsheviks to power, it took Lenin’s recognition of the importance of the peasantry, his grasp of the immediate situation, his willingness to risk everything, and his good fortune at being in the right place at the right time with the right weapons.
On the other hand, the revolution was not wholly Marxist. Once the Bolsheviks were in power, it was natural that the real situations they faced would modify their Marxist-Leninist theories. When civil war and foreign intervention brought chaos, NEP provided a necessary respite. Stalin combined Marxism, Russian nationalism, and ruthless politics in ways no one could have foreseen. Although it fell short of its goal, Stalin’s program created an industrial state able to resist the blows that Hitler was to deal it.
Servants of the state though they were, collectivized by force, industrialized by force, purged, terrorized, and struggling by the millions to exist in forced labor camps or to leave the country, the Soviets in World War II nonetheless succeeded, with much help from the United States and other nations, in defeating Hitler and his allies.