After skillfully disposing and discrediting his political opponents within the Bolshevik Party, Josef Stalin had taken complete control of Russia. However, the country he now governed was in turmoil.
The peasants, who made up the majority of the population, despised the Communist ideals that the Government were trying to impose on them. Also, the Bolsheviks had kept grain prices artificially low for the past few years, in order to ensure a cheap supply of grain to export, so that much needed foreign machinery could be bough to industrialise Russia. However, the peasants, who worked the land, resented this, and began to hide grain and feed it to livestock, rather than sell it for the low prices offered. This caused a crisis in Russia in 1928, with some starving workers threatening to rise up and overthrow the Bolshevik regime.
To solve this problem, Stalin reversed the Bolshevik agrarian policy by seizing the land given earlier to the peasants following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and organizing collective farms. This essentially reduced the peasants back to serfs, as they had been during the monarchy. Stalin believed that collectivism would accelerate food production, but the peasants resented losing their land and working for the state. Millions were killed in forced labor or starved during the ensuing famine. Stalin also set in motion rapid industrialization that initially achieved huge successes, but over time cost millions of lives and vast damage to the environment. Any resistance was met with swift and lethal response; millions of people were exiled to the labor camps of the Gulag or were executed.
Stalin began his Terror following his rise to power: everybody became a target for the deadly NKVD, who would seize doctors, factory workers, lawyers, widows, teachers, anybody who was even vaguely linked with somebody who might have been a "saboteur". It was these "saboteurs" that Stalin blamed for any failure of a factory to meet it's ridiculously high output targets, as he could not allow the Communist industrialisation programme to appear flawed. In truth, there were many instances of machinery being broken and even exploding, but these were caused by an inexperienced, badly trained workforce.
The Terror did not end there, even those of the Communist elite were not safe from the deadly combination of Stalin's paranoia and ruthlessness. Facing growing opposition to many of his policies in 1932, even from those who had previously been loyal to him, it is thought that Stalin arranged the assassination of his protégé, Kirov, who many viewed as a genuine political threat to Stalin. Stalin used the assassination as a pretext to arrest many leading Communists, such as Kamenev and Zinoviev, who he did not entirely control. After brutal torture, they confessed to the murder of Kirov, along with hundreds of other crimes, all of which they were entirely innocent. They also implicated others in the plots, despite the details being absolutely ludicrous; the conspirators were said to have met in a hotel which had been demolished years before the alleged meeting, and at a time when one of the supposed plotters had actually been in prison. After confessing to their crimes, the "guilty" were executed immediately, ushering in the next wave of arrests and torture.
After eliminating all those not unquestionably loyal to him, Stalin turned his deadly gaze to the NKVD itself, purging all those who knew too much about the atrocities that Stalin had sanctioned. Yagoda, the leader of the NKVD during the Terror, was arrested, tortured, and put on trial, where he confessed and was executed.
Although official records are somewhat lacking, around 5,000 people were eventually executed for the murder of Kirov. Official documents do show at least 350,000 executions taking place in one year alone. The total death toll from the Terror is estimated at 750,000, with the majority being normal Russian people, but some estimates are far greater than this number, running into the millions in many cases.
The War Years
As war clouds rose over Europe in 1939, Stalin made a seemingly brilliant move, signing a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Stalin was convinced of Hitler's integrity and ignored warnings from his military commanders that Germany was mobilizing armies on its eastern front. When the Nazi blitzkrieg struck in June 1941, the Soviet Army was completely unprepared and immediately suffered massive losses. Stalin was so distraught at Hitler's treachery that he hid in his office for several days. By the time Stalin regained his resolve, German armies occupied all of the Ukraine and Belarus, and its artillery surrounded Leningrad.
To make matters worse, the purges of the 1930s had depleted the Soviet Army and government leadership to the point where both were nearly dysfunctional. After heroic efforts on the part of the Soviet Army and the Russian people, the Germans were turned back at Stalingrad in 1943. By the next year, the Soviet Army was liberating countries in Eastern Europe, even before the Allies had mounted a serious challenge against Hitler at D-Day.
Stalin had been suspicious of the West since the inception of the Soviet Union. Ever since the Soviet Union had entered the war, Stalin had demanded the Allies open up a second front against Germany. Both British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt argued that such an action would result in heavy casualties. This only deepened Stalin's suspicion of the West, as millions of Russians died.
As the tide of war slowly turned in the Allies' favor, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met with Joseph Stalin to discuss postwar arrangements. At the first of these meetings, in Tehran, Iran, in late 1943, the recent victory in Stalingrad put Stalin in a solid bargaining position. He demanded the Allies open a second front against Germany, which they agreed to in the spring of 1944. In February 1945, the three leaders met again at Yalta in the Crimea. With Soviet troops liberating countries in Eastern Europe, Stalin was again in a strong position and negotiated virtually a free hand in reorganizing their governments. He also agreed to enter the war against Japan once Germany was defeated.
The situation changed at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. Roosevelt died that April and was replaced by President Harry S. Truman. British parliamentary elections had replaced Prime Minister Churchill with Clement Attlee as Britain's chief negotiator. By now, the British and Americans were suspicious of Stalin's intentions and wanted to avoid Soviet involvement in a postwar Japan. The dropping of two atomic bombs in August 1945 forced Japan's surrender before the Soviets could mobilize.
Convinced of the Allies' hostility toward the Soviet Union, Stalin became obsessed with the threat of an invasion from the West. Between 1945 and 1948, he established Communist regimes in many Eastern European countries, creating a vast "buffer zone" between Western Europe and "Mother Russia." Western powers interpreted these actions as proof of Stalin's desire to place Europe under Communist control, thus formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to counter Soviet influence. In 1948, Stalin ordered an economic blockade on the German city of Berlin, in hopes of gaining full control of the city. The Allies mounted a massive airlift, supplying the city and eventually forcing Stalin to back down.
Stalin suffered another foreign policy defeat after he encouraged North Korean Communist leader Kim Il Sung to invade South Korea, believing the United States would not interfere. Earlier, he had ordered the Soviet representative to the United Nations to boycott the Security Council because it refused to accept the newly formed Communist People's Republic of China into the United Nations. When the resolution to support South Korea came to a vote in the Security Council, the Soviet Union was unable to use its veto.
Though his popularity from his successes during World War II was strong, Stalin's health began to deteriorate in the early 1950s. After an alleged assassination plot was uncovered, he ordered the head of the secret police to instigate a new purge of the Communist Party and another Terror, with a focus on Jewish people. Before it could be executed, however, Stalin died on March 5, 1953. Like Lenin, he suffered a fatal stroke, but nobody dared to enter his room, where he had been heard to collapse, for over 24 hours, so scared were they of Stalin's wrath when he was interrupted. When he was eventually found, he was lying in a pool of his own excrement. Doctors were called, but they refused to treat Stalin, as they did not want to be held responsible for his death. He left a legacy of murder and terror as he transformed a backward nation into a one of the two world superpowers, a legacy that endures to this day.