Joseph Stalin is a globally recognized name for using dictatorial elements such as purges and labor camps to invoke terror. Nearly half of Russia, however, still view him as one of their greatest leaders. During his reign, Stalin caused the unjust death of 23 million people, many of whom were innocent Russian citizens (Wills). A combination of Stalin’s long-term effect on Russia through modernization, collectivization and social service improvement, as well as expansive use of propaganda to gain a “cult of personality” has continued to affect the Soviet Union even today. This has led to many Russians accepting Stalin’s mistakes, such as his brutality and violence towards his own people. Modernized education in the Soviet Union has also been structured to portray Stalin’s actions as fundamental, as a “necessary evil” to build Russia’s power. Stalin’s legacy lives on globally, as his unmatchable authority and control allow him to remain one of the most significant leaders in the history of Russia.
The first step in Stalin’s rise to power was to eliminate his opponent. Stalin, however, did this strategically, executing the murder of Vladimir Lenin in a guiltless manner. Initially, Lenin’s death was blamed on a series of strokes. Theories proposed Stalin’s involvement with Vladimir’s death, in which Stalin later admitted to via letter. He wrote, “I, Stalin, should take the responsibility for finding and administering to Lenin a dose of potassium cyanide. I felt it impossible to refuse him and declared: ‘I would like Vladimir Ilyich to be reassured and to believe that when it is necessary I will fulfill his demand without hesitation.” Despite later retracting his confession, Lenin’s death was undoubtedly extremely profitable to Stalin, as his quest for power was no longer imposed upon by higher authority. This allowed Stalin to manipulate history, leading citizens to believe he was the right fit for leadership. He often portrayed himself as cherishable to Lenin, despite Lenin’s apprehension towards the ability of Stalin to manage Russia as a whole. Facade was a crucial element in Stalin’s popularity, as he depicted himself as the ideal ruler to the citizens of the Soviet Union. For example, Leon Trotsky was initially planned to rule Russia alongside Stalin following Vladimir’s death, but to have absolute power, Joseph informed Trotsky of the incorrect date of Lenin’s funeral. Doing so, allowed Stalin to appear closer to Lenin than his opponent. In August of 1940, Leon Trotsky was assassinated by a leader of the Spanish Communist Party (Gessen). With a country so desperate for change and leadership, the deaths of Lenin and Trotsky led to an inevitable rise of Stalin’s power.
Stalin’s modernization strategy transformed Russia from a struggling country to one of the most dominant and feared countries globally. Consequently, this escalation of power resulted in extreme economic improvement. Stalin stressed “socialism in one country” to his citizens (Socialist Alternative). He developed a plan of rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization in order to turn Russia into a self-sufficient power. This plan became known as the “5-year Plan”, which projected goals of a 110% increase of coal production, a 200% increase in iron production, and a 335% increase in electrical power (Elgeda). Industrialization skyrocketed as Stalin created numerous factories and increased employment rates. This modernization of Russia allowed the Soviet Union to essentially catch up with countries that had surpassed them. These changes later allowed a considerable advantage when WWII began, leading to success in the war that only popularized Russia and the leadership of Joseph Stalin.
Stalin’s 5 Year Plan also projected agricultural collectivization, which consisted of merging small Russian farms to create larger and more dynamic ones. This benefitted Russia greatly economically, as the country converted from relying on self-sufficiency to becoming a booming industry. However, agricultural collectivization led to the unemployment of a high number of peasants known as the Kulaks. Traces of violence arose as the Kulaks were forced into slavery on larger farms, facing death or placement in labor camps if they refused (Hingley). Despite the cruelty, Stalin’s strategy worked well economically and led to an increase in food production. Stalin’s farming innovations had dramatic impacts on the economy of the Soviet Union, which have proceeded to improve to this day.
Before Stalin, social services were essentially non-existent in the Soviet Union. His introduction to modern elements such as healthcare, feminism, and free education was considered extremely advanced for the time period. These components drastically improved the lives of citizens in certain instances. Following the beginning of World War II, women were forced to fill in for the men absent due to war. Because of this, women were permitted equal educational rights so that they could properly fulfill these roles. Additionally, healthcare improvements were introduced, which made the Russian population the first strain of humans to be immune to detrimental viruses such as cholera, typhus, and malaria. As well as this, women under Stalin’s rule were some of the first to give birth in hospitals. Education-wise, Stalin established a program known as “LicBez”. This program was intended to improve literacy among Russian citizens. Stalin enforced education by requiring four years of mandatory schooling (Applebaum). Despite Stalin’s violent side, social services were at their height due to his 5 Year Plan, overall extending the life-span and well-being of citizens living in the Soviet Union.
In the 1930s, Stalin began to recruit a following that became known as “the cult of personality.” Stalin heavily employed propaganda techniques such as radio broadcasts, posters, and public transports such as trains, as well as common places such as movies, newspapers, and literature. Propaganda often portrayed Stalin as a descendent of Christ, which allowed him to easily appeal to the members of the Russian Orthodox Church, as it had been recently abolished (Hingley). The cult of personality manipulated Russian citizens into idolizing Stalin, providing them with a feeling of reassurance and stability in the power of Russia. Due to the disparity of the Soviet Union in this period, Stalin’s authoritative leadership techniques allowed his followers to do so faithfully and with a strong sense of nationalism.
The Great Purges of Joseph Stalin are considered some of the most horrific events in history. Despite the trauma, abuse, and discrimination administered against innocent citizens, some argue the necessity of the incidents. Swedish Communist journalist, Mário Sousa, defended this in his article regarding the purges. He claims, “They are brought up time and time again in bourgeois mass media giving the public a completely untruthful and false picture of the purges, the political trials, and the Soviet Union of the period” (Sousa). Additionally, the Communist government suggested they instilled purges in hopes of defending their country from potential threats. In the 1930s, competing countries such as Britain, France, and Germany opposed the Soviet Union and became considered cautionary. As a result of this, mercenaries from these countries entered Russia in order to gather confidential information, recruiting Stalin’s own Russian citizens to assist on the way. Stalin and the USSR saw this a threat to the country’s safety, therefore instilling the use of purges. Identified traitors immediately became a target of the government, often being sentenced to prison or death. Members of the Russian government spoke out regarding the purges, one saying, “It is unfortunate if innocent people were affected. But in the prevailing situation, there was nothing better to do.” By Stalin’s decision to utilize purges, Russia was able to protect themselves successfully against their opposition. Reasons such as these defend the logic that many people still use to support Stalin and his leadership, despite the numerous lives stolen during this time.
The perception of Stalin differs in every region of the world. In Russia, Stalin is taught to students as a necessary and crucial element to the advancement of Russia. “The result of Stalin’s purges was a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization in conditions of shortages of resources, loyal to the supreme power and immaculate from the point of view of executive discipline” (Kotkin, 34). Additionally, Russians are typically under the impression that WWII began in 1941 and that they fought independently for a total of three years. As well as this, Russian textbooks avoid the inclusion of Britain and the United States in WWII. However, in the United States, the role of the USSR is excluded from the information regarding the defeat of Hitler. An excerpt from a Russian history textbook acknowledges Stalin as “Russia’s greatest leader of the 20th century.” The assortment of information published in different regions of the world offer people varying impressions of Stalin’s dictatorship. Specifically, Russian citizens may not fully understand the depth and severity of Stalin’s actions.
Stalin’s legacy will always be an influential part of Russia’s history, both as an era of cruelty or as one of change and improvement. Despite the fear invoked by Stalin’s leadership techniques, benefits did surface such as industrialization, modernization, and collectivization of Russia. These components are still extremely effective in allowing the country to maintain the same power that it once had under the authority of Joseph Stalin. His propaganda and educational techniques altered Russian views of the dictator, allowing for justification for the Great Purges and atrocity against his own followers. Undoubtedly, Joseph Stalin changed the outcome of Russia drastically for the better. As neither a positively nor negatively viewed figure, Stalin will remain one of the most prominent figures in Russia for the rest of history.
- Hingley, Ronald. ‘Joseph Stalin.’ Britannica, www.britannica.com/biography/Joseph-Stalin.
- Applebaum, Anne. ‘Understanding Stalin.’ The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/11/understanding-stalin/380786/.
- Gessen, Keith. ‘How Stalin Became Stalinist.’ The New Yorker, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/06/how-stalin-became-stalinist.
- Wills, Matthew. ‘What Do We Really Know about Joseph Stalin?’ JSTOR Daily, daily.jstor.org/what-do-we-really-know-about-joseph-stalin/.
- Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin. 2018.
- ‘Socialism in One Country.’ Socialist Alternative, www.socialistalternative.org/ russia-bureaucracy-seized-power/socialism-one-country/.
- Elgeda, Jenna. ‘Stalin’s Five Year Plan.’ Sutori, www.sutori.com/story/ stalin-s-five-year-plan–QnYhm2Cjx
- Sousa, Mario. ‘The Purges of the CPSU.’