The Bolshevik party rose to power against the backdrop of the anarchy surrounding Russia’s disastrous military position in the latter part of World War I. Once the Bolsheviks were firmly in power by 1922, they embarked on a fascinating and almost unprecedented series of political and social experiments. After all, no country in the history of the planet to that point had undergone a successful communist revolution, so there was no precedent for how a socialist society was supposed to be organized. Facing a terrible economic crisis from the years of war, the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin launched the New Economic Policy, which allowed limited market exchange of goods and foodstuffs, even as the state supported a renaissance in the arts and literature. For a few years, not only did standards of living rise, but there was a flowering of innovative creative energy as artists and intellectuals explored what it might mean to live in the country of the future.
Lenin had driven the revolution forward, and he oversaw the social and economic experiments that followed the war. He died in 1924, however, inaugurating a struggle within the Bolshevik leadership to succeed him. In 1927, Joseph Stalin politically defeated his enemies (most importantly the Bolshevik leaders Trotsky and Zinoviev, two of Lenin’s closest allies before his death) and consolidated total control of the state. Officially, Stalin was the “Premier” of the communist party - “the first” - overseeing its central decision-making committee, the Politburo. Unofficially, Stalin’s control of the top level of the party translated into pure autocracy, not hugely dissimilar in nature to the power of the Tsar before the revolution.
Before his rise to power, Stalin’s position in the Russian Communist Party had been relatively innocuous; he was its secretary, a position of little direct power but enormous potential influence. In order to achieve appointment to a given position within the party, other members of the party had to go through Stalin. He shrewdly used this fact to cement political relationships and influence, so that by Lenin’s death he was well-positioned to make a power grab himself. Lenin suffered a series of strokes in the early 1920s, giving Stalin the opportunity to build up his power base without opposition, even though Lenin himself was worried about Stalin’s dictatorial tendencies.
Stalin is a much more enigmatic figure than Hitler, to whom he is often compared thanks to their respective legacies of mass murder. Stalin did not write manifestos about his beliefs, nor did he leave behind many documents or letters that might help historians reconstruct his motivations. Biographers have had to rely on the accounts of people who knew Stalin rather than having access to troves of personal records. He also changed his mind frequently and did not stick to consistent patterns of behavior or decision-making, making it difficult to pin down his essential beliefs or goals. His only overarching personality trait was tremendous paranoia: he almost always felt himself surrounded by potential traitors and enemies. He once informed his underlings that “every communist is a possible hidden enemy. And because it is not easy to recognize the enemy, the goal is achieved even if only five percent of those killed are truly enemies.”
Stalin’s paranoia was reflected in his ruthless policies. The 1930s in the USSR were a terrible time, representing the decade of Stalin’s “purges.” Stalin forced through massive change to the Soviet economy and society while periodically killing off anyone he could imagine being a threat or enemy. Communism was “supposed” to spread around the world after an initial revolutionary outburst, but instead it was stuck in one place, “socialism in one country,” in Stalin’s words, which he believed necessitated a massive industrial buildup. The only thing that benefited from Stalin’s oversight was the military, which grew dramatically and, for the first time since the Napoleonic Wars, achieved a level of parity with the west.
Of his many destructive policies, Stalin is perhaps best remembered for the purges. "Purging" consisted of rounding up and executing members of the communist party, the army, or even the police forces themselves. Normally, Stalin's agents would use torture to force the hapless victims to confess to outlandish charges like conspiring with Germany or (later) the United States to bring down the Soviet Union from within. His secret police force, the NKVD (its Russian acronym - it was later changed to KGB) often following direct orders from Stalin himself, eliminated uncounted thousands more. Thus, even at the highest levels of power in the USSR, no one was safe from Stalin's paranoia.
Stalin relied on the NKVD to carry out the purges, targeting better-off peasants known as kulaks, then the Old Bolsheviks (who had taken part in the revolution itself), army officers, middle-ranking communist party members, and finally, tens of thousands of regular citizens caught in the grotesque machinery of accusation and punishment that plagued the country in the second half of the 1930s. Every purge was designed to, at least in part, purge the past purgers, blaming them for “excesses” that had killed innocent people - this of course simply led to the murder of more innocents. So many people disappeared that most Soviets came to believe that the NKVD was everywhere, that everyone was an informer, and that everything was bugged. In addition to outright murder, thousands more were imprisoned in labor camps known as gulags, almost all of which were located in the frigid northern regions of Siberia. The total number of victims is estimated conservatively at 700,000, which does not count the hundreds of thousands deported to the gulags.
While emblematic of Stalin’s tyranny, the purges did not result in nearly as many deaths as did his other policies. Earlier in the 1930s, Stalin imposed the collectivization of agriculture, forcing millions of peasants to abandon their farms and villages and move to gigantic new "collective" farms. Collectivization required peasants to meet state-imposed quotas, which were immediately set at unachievable levels. In the winter of 1932 – 1933 in particular, peasants across the USSR (and especially in the Ukraine) starved to death – probably around 3 million people died of starvation, and the collectivization process resulted in another 6 - 10 million deaths including those who were executed for resisting. Thus, the total deaths were probably over 10 million. Despite falling abysmally short of its production goals, where collectivization “succeeded” was in destroying the age-old bonds between the peasants and the land; in the future, Soviet peasants would be a resentful and inefficient class of farm workers rather than peasants rooted in the land who identified with traditional values.
Acknowledging the vast gap between the Soviet Union's industrial capacity and that of the west, Stalin also introduced the Five-Year Plans, in which sky-high production quotas were set for heavy industry. While those quotas were never actually met and thousands died in the frenzy of industrial buildup, the Five-Year Plans were (perhaps surprisingly) successful as a whole in achieving near parity with the western powers in terms of industrial capacity. One of the only aspects of communist ideology that was reflected in reality in the USSR was that industrial workers, while obliged to toil in conditions far from a “worker’s paradise,” were at least spared the worst depredations of the purges and did not face outright starvation.
Stalin’s overriding goals were twofold: secure allies abroad against the growing power of Germany (and, to an extent, Japan), and drag the USSR into the industrial age. Despite the turmoil of his murderous campaigns, he succeeded on both counts. While remaining deeply hostile to the western powers, the Soviet state under Stalin did end the Soviet Union’s pariah status, receiving official diplomatic recognition from the US and France in 1933. The Five-Year Plans were part of the USSR’s new “command economy,” one in which every conceivable commodity was produced based on quotas imposed within the vast party bureaucracy in Moscow. That approach to economic planning was disastrous in the long run, but in the short run it did succeed in industrializing the USSR. On the eve of World War II, the USSR had become the third-largest industrial power in the world after the United States and Germany, and was counted among the major political powers of not just Europe, but the world.