Soviet Communism: The Stalinist Era

Figure 1.--Soviet propaganda in the 1930s painted a picture of happy and well-fed peasants and workers. This impressed some Americans suffering through the Depression. German soldiers as they cut a swaith through the Soviet Union in 1941 brought back images of terrible rural poverty. This was not poverty they created because of their terrible depredations, but poverty they encountered. It is well known that Soviet agricultural policies were disasterous, but we have been shocked by the level of rural poverty that existed in the Soviet Union. We are not entirely sure just how to interpret these images. We see many people wearing rags and living in hovels. It us very different from the image of the country projected by the Soviet propaganda machine. Conditions for workers in the cities by contrast seem much better.

Soviet scholars in the deStalinization period argued that Stalin was an aberation. The only problenm with that was that much of the history of the Soviet state and many of its most important achievements occurred during Stalin's rule. The country was transformed during the Stalinist era. The Soviet Union changed from a backward agricultural state to a major industrial power. A great emphasis was placed on education and peasants and workers saw their sons enter universities. The major achievement was the defeat of NAZI Germany in the Great Patriotic War. The industrial advances were achieved at great cost. The Soviet people were subjected to an unbelievable reign of terror. Not only did millions disappear into the Gulag, but the camps became a country within a country where millions labored as slaves in horrendous conditions. In addition, mush of the developent was inefficent and not vialble in a market economy. There was also great damage to the environment.


It is now recognized by most authors that Stalin's ruthless policies including engineering a famine in the Ukraine resulted in more deaths that even Hitler's Holocaust and other genocidal policies. Stalin set up a cult of personality in which the Soviet people were forced to virtaully worship him. Stalin organized a series of show trials in which priminent officials and military officers were forced to admit to ludicrous accounts of treason. Soviet citizens were encouraged to denounce their neigbors. Many did in an effort to improve their chances of survival.

Political Supression

Atheist Campaign

The Soviet Communist state launched the first atheist campaign in history. There had been many campaigns against specific religions, but never befor a state-organized campaign against all religions. The atheist campaign began as soon as the Bolheviks seized power, but obly with the end of the Civil War did the Soviet state organize a systematic campaign against religion. The Soviet Union and Communist states in general were openly hostile to religion and officially atheist. The intensity of the aheist campaigns they launched varies, but during the Bolshevist and Stalinist era the Soviet campaign was intense. The Soviets took the Marxist position that there was no God. It was far more than a metaphysical matter. They consideed religion a crime and a way of opressing the people. Marx wrote, "Religion is the opium of the people." [Marx] It was a phrase repeated by Lenin. Under Lenin and the Bolsheviks Marx's words were converted into a systematic, often brutal campaign to religion from the life of the people. Religion had been very important in Russian life, especially the Orthodox faith. The primary focus was on Christinity, but there were other religiins in the Soviet Union, including judaism and Islam. The Soviet secret police comenced aabage campaign to destroy religion. It included the confiscation of church property, tearing down churches, arresting and murdering clergymen and nuns, and discouraging the practice of religion in many ways. [Gorbachev, pp. 20-21.] This began nefore Stalin seized control of the state. Undr Stalin's NKVD such actions could be organized with chilling effiency. The historiam nof Salinist oppression writes, " Religious believersm of course, were being arrested uninterruptedly. (there wre nevertheless, certain special dates and peak periods. There was 'a night of struggle against religion' in Leningrad on Christmas Eve, 1929, when they arrested a large part of the religious intelligencia and held them--not just until morning eiher. And there was certainly no 'Chrostmas Tale.'" [Solzhenitsyn, p. 50.] The hostility to religion continues in the surviving Communist countries (Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam).

First Five-Year Plan

The Soviets reported substanial economic and industrial progress. Actually before World War I Russia had a very rapidly growing economy, including heavy industry. Some economists suggest that the Russian economy would have developed even more rapidly had the Bolshevicks not seized control of the economy. That argument aside, the Bolshevicks did make major achievements. As part of the First Five-Year Plan, heavy industrial projects were erected on a vast scale, including power plants, steel mills, oil explpration, and major industrial centers (Kuznetzk in Siberia, Magnetogosk in the Urals, and severl others). A huge hydro-electric power plant was built on the Dnieper. [Wells, p. 960.] An American, Col. Hugh Cooper, oversaw the construction of tge Dneprostroi hydroelectric plant. A millionaire Montana wheat farmer , Thomas Campbell, oversaw the huge Gigant wheat farm in the norhen Caucasus. This was a massive undertaking on semi-arid land. American and other foreign companies played an enormous role in the First Five Year Plan. Major American companies (Ford, Packard, International Harvester, General Electric, and several others). This was done before the United States recognized the Societ Union. European companies, especially British and German were also involved. [Salisbury, p. 442.]

The Stalingrad Incident (1930)

A criminal assault involving three Americans in Stalingrad became known as the Stalingrad Incident. It relates to several important issues concerning Stalin's Soviet Union. The Ford Motor Company received a contract to build a giant tractor plant in Stalingrad--The Traktorostroi. In effect, the United States was helping to build Soviet industry. Two white American Ford Motor Company workers at the plant attacked a black American laborer (August 1930). Soviet authorities arrested the two assailants and then turned the investigation and trial into a month-long propaganda campaign. The men were brought to “proletarian justice”. The theme of the campaign according to one historian was "to cultivate the image that workers in the USSR valued American technical and industrial knowledge in the construction of the new socialist society, but vehemently rejected American racism". [Roman] The Soviet propaganda campaign showed photographs of blacks and whites working together as equals in the Soviet Union next to images of lynching in the United States.

The Deppression

The Great Depression of the 1930s caused many in the West to question capitalism and free markets. Today with the accendancy of free markets the extent of this rejection is difficult to understand. Socialism already had considerable support among European workers. As a result of the Depression many university students also turned to or dabled in Communism. The Depression greatly enlarged the number of people sympathetic to Communism. The Soviet Communist state was seen by some as a utopia compared to the unemployment and despair in a free marketeconomy. There was of course a third competing system which also appeale to many in the 1930s, that of Fascism.


Agricultural production after impressive gains durng the NEP of the 1920s declined in the 1930s. This was in sharp contrast to rising industrial production and wholly the result of Stalin's decession to end individual peasant propretorship (1929-31). We do not fully understand Stalin's thought processes here. There may have been an element of idelogical purity involved. The organization of the collective proved useful in fighting the NAZI invasion. The principal reason, however, appears to be that private proprietors were an independent interest group outside his control and he wanted total control of not only the Sovet state, but of Soviet society as well. The mechanisms used were brutal. Successful peasants were vilified as Kulaks. Most were forced into collectives others were deported to Siberia where many died. Resistance flared. Many peeasants slaughtered their livestock rather than turn it over to the collectives. [Wells, pp. 960-961] The Soviet livestock industry did not recover until well after World War II. Resistance was espcially pronounced in the. and was brutally supressed by the NKVD. The center of resistance was the Ukraine. There a terrible famine not only resulted, but was enginered by Stalin.

Ukranian Famine (1932-33)

One of the greatest crimes of the Stalinist era was horific famine in the Ukraine. The famine area included both the Ukraine and the Soviet northern Caucasus, as well as Russian areas in the lower Volga River basin. Famines are historically primarily the results of natural events such as drought, heat, diseases, insect infestations, and other natural causes. The Ukrsanian famine was primarily caused by Stalin's program of collectiving Soviet agriulture, especially the forced collectivization of the Ukraine. The Ukraine had been the bread basket of Russia. It was the prize sought by the Germans in two world wars. The rich, well watered soil made the Ukraine the most productive agrivcultural area of the Soviet Union. Two issues merged which resulted in dissaster for the Ukranian people. Not only did the Ukranian peasantry resist collectivization, but there was a strong Ukranian national spirit, especially in the western Ukraine. Stalin was determined to both bring agicultural under central control, but to crush Ukrainian nationalism at the same time. Stalin not only used the famine to crush the spirit of the Ukranisn peole, but he also purged the Ukrainian intelligentsia. Stalin even purged the Ukrainian Communist party. At the cost of millions of lives, many of them children, the famine succeedded in breaking any organized redsistance on the part of the peasantry to collectivization. Stalin's purges also succeeded in smashing the Ukranian national movement. Stalin's actions in the Ukraine were not without costs beyond the deaths of Ukranians. Agricultural production plummeted. Soviet agricultural became one of the most inefficent agricultural operations in the world. Stalin bought Ukranian agricultural under his control through collectivization, he also signicantly reduced the output of Soviet agriculture.

Soviet Birth Rates and Population Trends

We do not yet have complete details on Soviet birthrate trends. One overwealming factor was the industrializatioin pushed by Stalin. This meant a shift of population from rural areas to the cities. Urbanization always means a decline in the birth rate. This process continued throughout Soviet times. Another fasctor affecting the birth rate was asbortion. Decliniing birth rates became an increasing concern during the late Soviet period. Birth rates in the post-Soviet era have fallen to critical levels and has become a major concern of Russian polic makers. Population trends were also affected by other factors. One was public health programs which improved during the Soviet era. Another was Soviet policies like the Ukranian famine. And of course World War II and genocidal NAZI policies had a terrible impasct on the Soviet population.

Living Conditions

Living conditions in the Soviet Union are difficult to assess. Soviet statistics are suspect because they were politicized. Managers who reported poor results might well be arrested and shipped off o the Gulag. And the Government wanted positive statistics to prove that Communism was amore efficent economic system. Soviet propaganda in the 1930s painted a picture of happy and well-fed peasants and workers. Photographic images were carefully chosen to convey a positive image. This impressed some Americans suffering through the Depression. There are two sources of imagery that provide reliable information about living conditions without an ideological filter. German soldiers as they cut a wide swaith through the Soviet Union in 1941 brought back images of terrible rural poverty. This was not poverty they created because of their terrible depredations, but poverty they encountered. It is well known that Soviet agricultural policies were disasterous, but we have been shocked by the level of rural poverty that existed in the Soviet Union. We are not entirely sure just how to interpret these images. We see many people wearing rags and living in hovels. It us very different from the image of the country projected by the Soviet propaganda machine. Conditions for workers in the cities by contrast seem much better. The German photographs provide a very narrow chronological window, mostly 1941-42. By 1942 the Germans soldiers were taking fewer images of Soviet peasants and had been driven out of much of Russia proper, although they did reseize the Ukraine. Another good source of information are the family snapshots taken by Soviet citizens.

Cult of Personality

A cult of personality is the prctice of elevating a leader to a pre-eminent status through a state-sponsored propaganda campaign. Stalin is best knnown for a this practice and the term in fact was coined to describe his rule. The Soviet 20th Party Congress after Stalin's death criticised him for creating a "cult of personality" (1956). Yhis was not a term used during Stalin's life time, but it does aptly described the Soviet state he created. And it was in the tradition of powerful tsars who ruled with religious authority and semi-devine status. Stalin's religion was of course Communism. After Stalin's death, he was criticised for departing from Lenin's more colegial decesion making process. And great efforts were extended to show how Stalin was aboration who diverted the fledgling Soviet Union from Lenin's intended path. That may partialy be the case, although the instruments of repression (secret police, extra-jusicial arrests and executions, and concentration camps) were all put in place by Lenin, although it is true that Stlin significantly expanded the unstitutions of state terror. It was commonly said that Lenin wanted Communism to serve the people while Stalin wanted people to serve Communism. Lennin saw the Communist Party as the vangard of the proleterit. Stalin saw it didderently because there was considerable opposition within the Party to his leadership. Through considerable ingenuity with a mixture of guile and ruthlessness, he managed to outmaneuver his enemies. He ruthlessly disposed of his enemies so that by the late-1920s he controlled both the Party and Sovier state. The purges of the 1930s dealt with those who had dared question or oppose him. And people were targeted in large numbers for no apparent reasons. This caused Soviet officials to realize that it was not enough just to not opposed Stalin, but one had to be seen actively supporting him. This was the origin of the cult of personality. It is probably not correct to say that Stalin himself created the practice, but the system that he built created it. Officials competed with one another in paying homage to Stalin. At a noted Moscow meeting, the assembed audience aplauded Stalin at the beginning of the meeting. Then there was a realization that it would not be wise to be seen as the first person who stopped clapping, so the apsluse went on intermably. Afterwards a procedure was adoptedwhich signaled wjen the applause should stop. Stalin maintained that the Party itself was affected by a false consciousness (partly the result of spies and traitors) amd thus needed his guidance. Stalin's image was everywhere in the Soviet Union. His image was displayed everywhere, in factories, schools, government offices. A city were named after him to raise him to the lecel of Lenni. He took credit for the Soviet Union's successes. Failures were blamed on others. Since the 20th Party Congress, Communists have argued that Stalin and the cult of personality were an aberation. The problen for Communists is that the Stalinist practices are more the standard practice than the exception. They were repeated in Mao's China and common in the Soviet Eastern European empire. They can be seen today in countries like Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela.

Second Five-Year Plan (1932- )

The First Five-Year Plan concentrated on heavy industry. Soviet officials announced that the Second Five-Year Plan would focus on housing, transport, consumer goods in an effort to raise the standard of living. [1932]. The Plan in the midst of a world-wide depression achieved some notable successes.

Political Repression

The late 1920s saw Stalin move to take total control of the Soviet state from his position of power as Chairman of the Communist Party. The resulting arrests, show trials and executions startled the world. First Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army and hero of the Civil War was expelled frommthe party by Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Sralin. Kamenev and Zinoviev soon found that they had handed themselves over to Stalin who controlled the Party aparatus and NKVD. Trotsky wisely fled the country. It would take Stalin's henchmen 10 yearsc to tarck him down and kill him in Mexico City (1940). After Kirov's assasination (1930), which Stalin may have ordered, more than 110 people were executed. This was the begiining of the purges. The show trials began with arrest of 14 of Lenin's closest associates (including Kamenev and Zinoviev) who were charged with treason and shot (1936). After a few months another group of mostly old Bolshevicks shared a similar fate. Next it was the Red Army's turn when Tukhachevsky and many other ranking officers were arrested and shot. Subsequent purges decimated the ranks of the officer corps. (This and Stalin's poor preparatuins and tactics are major factors in the Red Army's poorcperformance when the Wheremach attcked.) Similar trials occured for lesser officials throughout the country. All of the accussed in major show trials, with no known exceotions, gave confessions admitting to the procecutions charges which were commonly extremely improbable. After the purges, Stalin was the old important surviving Bolshevick of any prominance left alive.

The Great Purges (1936-38)

The Popular Leningrad leader Sergi Kirov was murdered in 1934. Most historians believe that Stalin was probably responsible, but no actual evidence exists. Kirov was one of Stalin's important associates as he seized control of the Party. The two were very close. Kirov gradually came to question Stalin's methods. This probably was why he was killed. Stalin is known to have derived satisfaction over many of the executions. Kirov seems to have been different. The decesion to have him killed seems to have affected him deeply. Stalin used the Kirov assasination as an excuse for launching a campaign of teror perhaps unequaled in histoy. Many within the Party had opposed him. Now he prepared to root out any opposition, first within the Party and then society as a whole. This was done by targetting groups of people rather than individuals. This is often referred to as the Great Purges, although a historian as popularized the Great Terror. It began with the arrest of the Old Bolsevicks that had prominant roles in the Revolution, including many of Stalin's closest associates. The elite of the Soviet Communist Party was desimated. Show trials were held for some. This was the public face of the purges. Most simply disppapeared, either being shot without a trial or being committed to the the Gulag. Orders went out to NKVD offices throughout the country with quotas to be filled. Some offices sought to impress headquaters by exceeding their quota. The height of the trror was 1937. The institutions of the Soviet state were affected, including the Red Army. Not only was this the only institution that could threaten Stalin. German agents convinced Stalin that army officers were plotting againt him. The result was a severe loss of some of the best trained and most professionl military officers. Many believe this, in part, explains the poor perormance of the Red Army when the Germans invaded (1941). Historians disagree as to the full extent of the purges, especially the death toll. It seems likely that over 1 million Soviet citizens were sumarily executed or died as a result of illtreatment during detention. The terror ended in 1938 as Stalin moved to scale it back. The overseer of the purges, Yezhov was relieved and then purged himself. This had two advantages for Stalin. It made it look like he was not resonsible and the execution of Yezhov destoyed much of the evidence of his envolvement. Stalin appointed Lavrenty Beria, a fellow Georgian and close confidant, as the new NKVD chief.

NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggresion Pact

NAZI Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and newly appointed Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov on August 23, 1939, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. At the time of thesigning, British and French delegations were in Moscow trying to reach an understanding with Stalin. Hewas convinced, however, that they were tring to draw him into a war with Hitler. The two countries which until that time had been bitter foes, pledged not attack each other. Any problems developing between the two countries were to be delt with amicably. It was last for 10 years. The Pact shocked the world and the purpose was immedietly apparent. It meant that Germany could attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Thus after defeating Poland, Germany did not have to fear a full-scale European war on two fronts. What was not known at the time was that there was a secret protocol to the pact which in effect divided Eastern Europe betwen the two countries. This protocol was discoered after the end of the World War II in 1945. The Soviets continued to deny this protocol until 1989. The NAZIs 8 days after signing the Pact invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II. Britain and France declared war September 3. Poland's fate was sealed on September 17, when the Soviets invaded Poland from the east. Although the Soviet's did not enter the War against Britain and France, the Soviets were virtual NAZI allies as they provided large quantaies of strategic materials, especially oil. Communist parties in Britainand France opposedthe war effort. The Communst Party in America opposed President Roosevelt's efforts to expand defense spending and assist Britain and France.

The Gulag

The Gulag is the system of slave labor camps initially established in 1919 by the Cheka--the secret police established by the Bolshevicks after they seized power from the Russian Provisional Government. The numbers of people incarcerated was realtively limited during the 1920s while Lenin was alive and after his death when Bolsevick leadrs struggled for comtrol. This began to change one Stalin ha seized control of the Soviet Union. Stlalin was in control by 1929 and by the early 1930s the numbers of people incarcerated in the camps of the Gulag began to reach sizeable numbers. The Gulag under Stalin was administered by the Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps, a unit under the NKVD which had replaced the Cheka. As a reult of the increased arrests ordered by Stalin, the Gulag by 1934 had several million inmates. As in any country, some of the imates were murderers, thieves, and all variety of ordinary criminals. Under Stalin the make up of the prisonors changed and included increasing numbers of political and religious dissenters. Most were not dissenters in the sence of men and women actively working afainst the Soviet system. Many may simply have told a joke or have been reported by others for a host of reasons. Some were arrested simply because NKVD officers were given quotas. The Soviet Union under Stalin was a country in which the average citizen could at any time be arrested. Then they would be tortured and killed or sent to forced labor camps comprising an emense Gulag where they would often simply disappear. The Gulag camps were located throughout the Soviet Union, but primarily in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North where living conditions were often extremely severe--a factor in the low survival rates at some camps. The Gulag reached such significant levels that under Stalin it was a major factor in the Soviet econonomy. Gulag prisoners were used in several difficult construction projects such as the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Baikal-Amur main railroad line, numerous hydroelectric stations, and strategic roads and industrial enterprises in remote regions where it would have been difficult and expensive t have recruited free labor. GULAG slave labor was extensively used in the Soviet Union's lumber industry as well as the mining of coal, copper, and gold.

Great Patriotic War (1941-45)

The war on the Eastern Front was the most gighantic conflict in the history of warfare. In large measure, the result of the campaign determined the outcome of the War. It is difficult to see how the Western Allies could have staged the D-Day invassion to liberate France if the NAZIs had succeded in destroying the Red Army on the Easern Front. The resistance of the Soviet people to the NAZIs is one of the outstanding instances of heroism and valor in human history. It is no reflection on the character of the Soviet people that Stalin became virtually an ally of Hitler and launched a series of aggressions comparable to those of the NAZIs. Opperation Barbarossa came as a complete shock to Stalin (June 22, 1941). The Wehrmacht achieved stunning successes. In the drive toward Moscow and Leningrad, the NAZIs committed the most heinous attrocities in modern times. Hitler had made it clear from the onset that the campaign would be a war of extinction. At the gates of Moscow, the Russian Winter, interference by Hitler, and the bravery of the Red Army broke the Wehrmacht. Slowly after Moscow and Stalingrad the the weight of Allied production, the resurgent Red Army, the strastegic bombing campaign, and finally a second front with D-Day doomed the Wehrmacht.


Stalin ordered the forced resettlement of large numbers of non-Russisn Soviet citizens before, during, and after World War II. After seizing eastern Poland and the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latviam and Lithuania), large numbers were arrested and their families deported. During the War large numbers of people, mostly Muslims were forcibly resettled to isolated areas of the Soviet Union. One estimate suggests over 1.5 million people. Those deported included Volga Germans and seven nationalities grom the Crimea and the northern Caucasus were deported (the Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachai, and Meskhetians. There were also other minorities evicted from the Black Sea coastal region (Bulgarians, Greeks, and Armenians). Stalin was concerned about resistance to Soviet rule, desores for independence, and collaboration with the NAZIs. The possibility of a German attack was given as the reason for resettling the ethnically mixed population of Mtskheta, in southwestern Georgia. The Balkars were reportedly disciplined because it was alleged that they sent a white horse as a gift to Adolf Hitler. The KGB and other security forces rounded up and transported the deportees mostly railroad cargo to isolated areas in Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Siberia, Uzbekistan. These were not well planned deportations. Little arrangements were made to recieve them. Most accounts suggest that about 40 percent of the deportees perished. The Crimean Tatars had an especially horrendous experience. About half died of hunger in the first 18 after having been deportment. After the War there were deportments of Poles to the Poland. Large numbers of people were deported from the former Baltic republics after they were retaken from the NAZIs (1944). There had been some colaboration with the NAZIs in the Ukraine, but there wasno large scale deportmet, probably because of the number of people involved. After Stalin's death (1953), Nikita Khrushchev began the Destalinization process with a speech at the 20th Party Congress (February 1956). He condemned the deportations as a violation of Leninist principles.

Katyn Forrest

Poland's fate during World War II generally focuses on the NAZI occupation--arguably the most brutal in the annals of European history. The NAZIs were not the only country to invade Polnd in 1939. Often lost in the historical assessment is what the Soviets at Stalin's oders were doing in their occupation zone. This is probably due to the fact tht as the Soviets were part of the victorious Allied coalition, they were able to better limit the post-War relevations. In addition, the Soviet occupation lasted less than 2 years. The Soviet occupation was extrenmely brutal, only the NAZI occupation exceeds in britality. Stalin was also determined to undermine Polish nationalism and like the NAZis targeted the country's inteligencia and leadership. One group targeted for distruction was the Polish army officers interned by the Red Army. Most were from the upper and middle classes which also made them suspect to Stalin on ideological claas grounds. After the NAZIs invaded the Soviet Union they discovred the mass graves of thousands of Polish soldiers (mostly officers) executed by the NKVD on Stalin's orders in th Katyn Forrest nea Smolensk. Goebbels used the discovery in NAZI propaganda broadcasts. The NAZI broadcast were believeable because the men were known to have been in Soviet custody. The Soviets denied all knowledge of the men and continuied to do so until the fall of the Communist Government in Poland. The German relevations were in many ways the beginning of the Cold War. General Wladyslaw Sikorski's Polish Government demanded an investigation and a Red Cross investigation. Stalin used the opportunity to break diplomatic relations with the London-based Polish Government-in-exile. He created a compliant Union of Polish Patriots which would eventually become the Government of the People's Republic of Poland installed by the Soviets.

Cold War

Germany's defeat left Stalin in control of the countries of Eastern Europe. President Harry Truman whe he became president in April 1945 began taking a stringer aproach o the Soviets, disturbbed by Soviet actions in Poland. Stalin proceeded to install People's Republics in these states which men Stalinist police states subservient to the Soviet Union. American and European democracies sharply critivised the Soviet actions. Winston Churchill warned in 1946 that an "iron curtain" was descending through the middle of Europe. Joseph Stalin who had virtually allied himself wih Hitler in 1939 to launch World War II, blamed the Wat on "capitalist imperialism" and threatened Wrestern Europe. Preident Truman decided to support Western Europ ecomomically (the Marshll Plan) and militarily (NATO). The Cold War was a period of intense East-West competition, tension, and conflict, but always short of full-scale war. The first major episode was the oviet blockade of Berlin in 1948. Berlin was during much of the ColdWar a focal point of the conflict. The Soviets brutally supressed attempts by Eastern Europeans to overthrow Soviet imposed governments: East Germany (1953), Poland (1956), Hungary (1956), Czeselovakia (1978), and several other lesser outbreaks, especially in Poland. There were proxy wars and competition for influence in developing countries, many of which introduced Soviet command economics. There was also an arms race between the two super powers. After Stalin died in 1953, the Cold War became more unanced. There were periods of relaxation followed by resumed confrontation. The most dangerous point of tge Cold War was th Cuban Missle Criis (1962). There were efforts to persure detante during the 1970s. Unlike the other major conflicts in world history, in the end the Cold War was not settled by force of arms. It was the example of the West, especially the success of free market economics and political democracy that defeated Communism. [Mandelbaum]

Artistic Expression

The use of the arts by the Soviet Union to promote Communist ideology was an interesting aspect of the regime. One impact of course to stifel artistic creativity. An interesting question which we will address elsewhere is the impact on scientific creativity. The impact on the arts is especiallybinteresting as Stalin took a personal interest and in the case of music had a rather refined appreciation of music. An irony of the Soviet regime was its ability to train talented dancers and musicians, but did not provide them the freedom to pursue their talents. One of the few important Soviet composers was Dimtri Shostakovich and he was extensevely used by the Stalinist regime to showcase Soviet musical accomplishments. Years after Stalin's death, Solomon Volkov smuggled notes he claimed came from interviews with Shostakovich which he published as Shostakovich's memoirs--Testimony. The picture painted was a bleak life in which Shostakovich's genius was twarted and he knowingly supported a murderous regime. [Shostakovich] The Soviets denounced Testimony as a forgery. The debate over the book continues to this day. [Volkov and Brown]

The Doctors' Plot (1953)

The Doctor's Plot (врачи-вредители was concoted by Stalin to begin a wave of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. As far as we know, it was a creation of Stalin's own dark mind. We know of no aid or adviser who brought the idea tyo him as was often the case with Hitler. The full details are not completely understood because they were in Stalin's mind. There is, however, quite a bit known because after Stalin died, there was some documentary evidence and personal accounts as the doctors were released and new Soviet leaders began the preparations for the subsequent de-Stalinization campaign. The reason for the campaign seems to have been the same as the anti-Semetic campaign of Tsar Alexander III. By playing off the existing anti-Semitism of many Russians, the attention of the average Russian could be focused on Jews rather than deficenies of the Soviet state and Stalin's dictatorial rule. And by charging poison, Stalin was was playing into the prejudices of many Russians. A widely held medieval belief was that Jews poised Christians. They were widely blamed for the 14th century plague that devestated Europe. Other historicans believe that Stalin was preparing a major confrontation with the West now that he also had a nuclear arsenal. He calculated that that Soviet actions against the Jews would have helped to raise the level of internaional strife. Stalin like Hitler believed that Jews had great influence within the American Government and would have reacted to an anti-Semetic campaign. Stalin launched his campaign by accusing nine doctors, including six Jews, of planning to poison the Soviet leadership. The completely innocent doctors. Stalin's personal instruction to tortured them to obtain confessions needed for a show trial. His orders to the NKVD interogators were reportedly, "Beat, beat, and again beat." Along with the arrest of the nine doctors, an unknown number of other Soviet Jews were dismissed from their jobs, arrested, shipped to the Gulag, or executed. The NKVD which was expert in such matters obtained the confessions, and a show trial scheduled. Some scholars believe that the next step after the doctors were found guilty in the show trial was to launch old-fashioned pogroms throughout the Soviet Union after which Jews would be transported to Siberia en masse. Stalin reportedly already had the NKVD obtain signed appeals from prominent Soviet Jews begging him to protect Jews by sending them to Siberia. Other scholars deny these charges. There seems to be, however, no disagreement that Stalin planned a massive purge of Jews in the Communist Party and Soviet Government. Only days before the Doctors' Trials were schuled to begin, Stalin unexpectedly died (March 5, 1953). The trials were never held. Pravda announced that the arrested doctors were innocent and had been released (April 1953). [Rappaport] Ironically, the fact that his Jewish doctors as well as other Moscow doctors were arrested meant that Stalin did not get very good medical attention when he collapsed. A further irony is that while this massive attack on Soviet Jews (who were the only remaining large population of European Jews), progressives in the United States were accusing the United States of anti-Semitism because of the scheduled execution of atomic spies Juilius and Ethel Rossenberg. And they had helped steal atomic secrets because they believed that the Soiviet Union was a haven for Jews. In reality, it was Stalin's possession of nuclear weapons that have him the confidence to move against the Jews and the West.

De-Stalinization (1956)

After Stalin died in 1953, the Cold War became more unbalanced. There were periods of relaxation followed by resumed confrontation. It was unclear what direction the Soviet Union would take. Would another dictator appear or would a more collectivist leadership emerge. Another tital dictator was possible, this occurred in several other Communist countries (Albania, China, Cuba, North Korea, Romania, and Yugoslavia). Nikita Khrushchev shocked the Communist world when he denounced Stalin and the 'cult of personality'. This occurred in a secret speech at the 1956 20th Party Congress, but it soon leaked out. There were limits on how far Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders were prepared to go in opening up the Soviet Union. Most had been active participants in the Great Terror. Khrushchev owed his position to Stalin and in agreed with Stalin on many issues. [Taubman] When Khrushchev was replaced in 1964, the Party line changed. There was no further discussion of Stalin's crimes although there was also no return to mass terror. Some Leftist thinkers were convinced that Stalin had perverted Communism and that Khrushchev could radically transform the system to create a humane society. [Deutscher]

Assessing Stalin's Associates

A Russian reader writes, "In fact, all Stalin's mates - Beria, Khrushev, Molotov, Malenkov and so on - were fanatic communists and true servants of 'the Master' and are gulity in repressions and deaths of millions. In particular, by Khruschev's signature millions of people in Russia and Ukraine were put to death. But after Stalin's death this 'Rustic Harlequin' (as Stalin called Khruschev) managed to dispose all former associates (including Beria, Molotov, Malenkov, Vyschinky and so on) and to declare himself as 'the only savior of Soviet state from Stalin's tyranny'. 'There's no blood on my hands' -- he declared and lied." It strikes me that there was a difference between Stalin's henchmen and the top NAZIS, although I know much more about about Germany than Russia. In Germany you did not have to participate in the killing process. Hitler did arrest the Communists and some individuals who had opposed him, but for the most part other politicians and important figures were not arrested--as long as they kept their mouths shut and retired gracefully from public life. And some of the more hideous operations were brought to Hitler by men like Heydrich and Himmler for his approval and not conceived by Hitler on his own. There was relatively little (in relative terns) killing of Germans by the NAZIs in the German concentration camps. The Holocaust and other NAZI crimes were conducted by willing if not enthusiastic associates. In the Soviet Union, the operations like the Great Famine, and Great Purges seem to have been ideas that Stalin himself conceived of. And advisers who questioned Stalin's policies are even showed insufficient enthusiasm were likely to be arrested themselves. Stalin's associates may have been enthusiastic, but it strikes me that this was often self protection or career advancement, not because they really believed in Stalin's major terror programs. I agree with you that many of Stalin's associates were brutal men and complicit in his crimes, but they seem primarily willing to use force against groups who resisted like Khrushchev's suppression of the Hungarians. Stalin it seems to me actually enjoyed using terror and used it against mostly Soviet citizens, the vast majority of whom were innocent of any act of resistance. What ever the crimes of his associates, this use of terror ended with Stalin's death.


Brown, Malcolm Harrick. ed. A Shostakovich Casebook (Indiana University, 2004), 313p.

Deutscher, Issac. Deutscher is Trotsky's biographer.

Gorbachev, Mikhail. On My Country and the World (Columbia University Press: New York, 2000).

Marx, Karl. Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher (1843). Marx wrote this as part of the introduction to a book that criticized philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's 1820 book, Elements of the Philosophy of Right. The journal had a print run of only about 1,000. The phrase only became well known after the creation of the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism.

Mandelbaum, Michael. The Ideas that Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the 21st Century.

Pipes, Richard. VIXI: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger (Yale Iniversity Press: 2003), 264p. ("VIXI is Latin for "I lived." His parents managed to excape fom NAZI-occupied Poland. Most of their family perished in the gas chambers. Some describe him as the intelectual archetct of America's victory in the Cold War.)

Roman, Meredith. "Racism in a “Raceless” Society: The Soviet Press and Representations of American Racial Violence at Stalingrad in 1930," International Labor and Wrking-Class History (Cambridge University Press) Vol. 71 (March 2007), pp. 185-203.

Salisbury, Harrison E. "Diplomacy: The Indivisible Pace," in Harrison E. Salisbury, ed. The Soviet Union: The Fifty Years (Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1967), 484p.

Shostakovich, Demitri. Testimony.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexsanddr I. Trans, Thomas P. Wjitney. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Harper & Row: New York, 1973), 660p.

Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (Norton), 876p.

Volkov, Solomon. Shostakovich and Stalin: Thecextrodinary Relationship between the Great Composerv and the Brutal Dictator trans. Antonia W. Bouis (Knopf, 2004). 313p.

Webs, H.G. The Outline of History: The Hole Story of Man (Doubleday & Company: Ne York, 1971), 1103p.


Navigate the Children in History Website:
[Return to Main Soviet communism page]
[Return to Main specific war and crisis page]
[About Us]
[Introduction] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Freedom] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]

Created: April 9, 2004
Last updated: 5:10 AM 10/25/2015