Communism and the Man of Steel: The Rise of Joseph Stalin, 1922-1938

Communism and the Man of Steel: The Rise of Joseph Stalin, 1922-1938

Russia under Stalin: 1922-1938


It is ironic that the most iconic Russian of the twentieth century was not Russian by birth. Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, later known as Joseph Stalin, was born in the Caucasus Mountains of the neighboring country, Georgia. His rise to power in the Bolshevik party was unexpected, and his rule as the Soviet leader surpassed both Lenin’s and his successors in length. During Stalin’s time in office, he enacted numerous changes in domestic policies during the 1930s, oversaw Russian involvement in World War II, and instigated nearly a decade of Cold War tensions between Russia and the United States.


Learning Objectives

  • Identify the key programs developed by Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Evaluate Stalin’s rise to power.
  • Analyze how Stalin’s policies as leader of the Soviet Union differed from Lenin’s.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Joseph Stalin: Secretary General of the Soviet Union from 1922/24 – 1953.

Grigori Zinoviev: initially, a political ally of Stalin and member of the troika that helped defeat Trotsky during his attempt to succeed Lenin

Lev Kamenev: initially, a political ally of Stalin and member of the troika that helped defeat Trotsky during his attempt to succeed Lenin

Nikolai Bukharin: editor of the Bolshevik paper, Pravda, and initial close ally of Stalin

First Five-Year Plan: state-dictated economic policy (1928 – 33) that relied heavily on forced labor on collective farms, as well as requisitioning, to meet agricultural quotas

Collectivization: policy of the Five-Year Plans in which the state forced peasant farmers to give up individual farms and move onto large, collective farms with industrial machinery for mass agricultural output

Gulags: series of hundreds of prison camps through the Soviet Union known for their forced labor and harsh conditions and treatment of prisoners

Kazakh: a person from Kazakhstan in Central-Asia

Holodomor: artificial famine in Ukraine (1931 – 3) that occurred through Soviet practices and resulted in the deaths of over three million Ukrainians

dekulakization: brutal practice of the Russians in which they arrested, executed, or exiled “wealthy” peasant farmers

NKVD: the organization responsible for daily police and secret police activities that carried out excessive violence during the Great Purge

Great Purge: two-years in which the NKVD, acting under Stalin’s orders, executed over one million people considered “enemies of the state”

show trial: a trial where the verdict is already known and the case is carried out for spectacle before a court audience


Stalin's Soviet Union in the 1920s


Background: Joseph Stalin


Joseph Stalin was born to a poor, working-class family near Tbilisi, Georgia in the late 1870s. The only child to survive to adulthood, Stalin’s father reportedly was an abusive alcoholic who took his frustrations out on his wife and son. Years later, historians speculated that the abuse influenced Stalin’s general psyche and actions as head of the Soviet Union. When his father died, Stalin’s mother found the money to send her son to seminary school. Despite his academic talents, Stalin quickly rebelled against the traditional school, learned Russian, and found inspiration through the writing and activities of the Bolsheviks.


Joseph Stalin around fifteen years of age.

As a young man, he initially did not measure up to the other Bolsheviks of the 1910s. His counterparts considered him poorly educated, a poor speaker, and overly “Asiatic” in his volatile temper and behavior.  Stalin, was, however, valued for his skills as an organizer, as well as for his ruthless treatment of political enemies. Unfortunately for his rivals, Stalin was also a master strategist and knew how to oust his comrades in the pursuit of moving up the political ladder.


Scramble for Succession


By 1921, it was evident that a successor must be chosen because of Lenin’s failing health.  He had suffered two strokes (and would suffer a third before he died in 1924). A handful of prominent Bolshevik leaders vied for the position of successor to Vladimir Lenin; Stalin being one of them. Increasingly, Stalin, who was General Secretary of the Communist Party, tried to press closer to Lenin’s side. In most matters, Stalin idolized Lenin, despite their disagreements.  By 1922, he had taken on the role of determining who would be allowed to see Lenin during his convalescence. And yet, the closer Stalin pressed to Lenin, the more Lenin seemed to push him away. A year before his death, Lenin described Stalin as not good for the party because of his excessive crudeness. Privately, he advocated for Leon Trotsky to be his successor. Trotsky was a skilled orator, politician, and intelligent statesman who had been closely involved with Lenin since the days of the October Revolution.


Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, Sept. 1922. The pair are at Lenin’s estate as he convalesces.
Stalin sits close to the Bolshevik leader to stress his close relationship.
His hand is positioned similar to the portraits of the former French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.


The death of Lenin sparked a scramble for succession as leader of the Soviet Union. Leon Trotsky was the favorite choice of Lenin, but he was despised by Stalin and disliked by two other prominent Bolsheviks: Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinoviev. Together with Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev formed a troika (political alliance) where the three acted as the governing head of the Soviet Union to block Trotsky’s ascension to power. Trotsky was forced into exile. Eventually, he made his way to Mexico—only to be murdered by one of Stalin’s henchmen in 1940.

Political squabbling continued, and Stalin had no intention of sharing power with Zinoviev and Kamenev. Their troika dissolved following Trotsky’s defeat. Both men lost faith in Stalin. During the Great Purge of 1936, both men would die before a firing squad ordered by their former ally.

Complex negotiations and party support instilled Stalin as Lenin’s sole successor and head of the Soviet Union in 1924. He quickly turned his attention to transforming agrarian Russia into a society of steel and industry.


Domestic Policies


At the time of Stalin’s ascension to power, Russia was still overwhelmingly an agrarian nation. The First World War had shown how technologically inferior Russia was to its Western counterparts. Stalin sought to change that and transform the country overnight. Chief among his goals was the death of the New Economic Policy that Lenin began. Although he would not publicly advocate for the policy’s demise because Lenin had backed it, Stalin would strategically find ways to dissolve the plan that called for a mixed economy (partially state-run, partially capitalist). In its place he would put a program that helped transform Russia, but at the highest human cost.


The First Five-Year Plan


Under Lenin’s New Economic Program, farmers had been forced to sell grain to the state but could also engage in private sales. A balance of state and private farming had ensued. Stalin sought to erase that in 1928 based on his plan to increase agricultural output to feed the rapidly-increasing urban population who worked in the factories.

To achieve this goal, Stalin introduced the First Five-Year Plan. This program eliminated private farming. Farms were merged into large, government-run collective farms across the Soviet Union. Moreover, each farm was required to meet government quotas for grain and meat. Stalin enacted these radical measures by excessive use of force. The “kulaks” (private farmers) emerged again as the public enemy of the Bolshevik regime.


Russian article produced in 1926 of the three types of peasant farmers:
poor peasant, semi-poor peasant, and the “wealthy” kulak peasant farmers


A central goal of Stalin’s program was to dekulakize the Soviet Union. Kulaks were vaguely defined as the “more prosperous farmers.” And Stalin waged war on them as part of the Bolshevik philosophy of class struggle. In the 1920s, a “prosperous farmer” could have been a private farmer with a large farm and high production yields. Usually, it meant a farmer who was more prosperous than the neighbor nextdoor. In such cases, a kulak might be classified as a farmer with eight acres, instead of one. Or seven cows instead of one.

Once again, Stalin used force to suppress “the enemy.” Kulaks were targeted by the state police for arrest, seizure of property, exile, and in some cases, execution. Across the board, farmers saw wages reduced and higher state quotas emerge. Resistance to such measures were severely punished. Neighbors turned against one another. Class struggle became not only a Bolshevik principle on paper but also daily practice under Stalin.

The first year of Stalin’s new program showed that despite the collectivized farms, agrarian shortages still prevailed. To counter this, Stalin continued his war on the kulaks and encouraged the poorest classes to do the same. Requisitioning—the government seizure and redistribution of goods—ruled the day. Across Russia, farmers and Bolsheviks alike targeted the kulaks. Government officials would arrive at their homes and seize grain and farm animals. Often, these kulaks were shot or exiled to one of Stalin’s infamous chain of gulags across Russia.

Two ethnic groups suffered especially during Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan: Ukrainians and Kazakhs. Kazakhstan was a Soviet ethnic state in central Asia. Although the Kazakhs were farmers, they were typically nomadic farmers. Unaccustomed to permanent settlement, they knew very little about producing cereal crops, much less vast yields of barley, wheat, and rye. Stalin deployed the Red Army to handle the situation. Kazakh farmers who resisted were shot. Those who did not produce high enough yields were shot. Threats and seizures of farm yields ensued. It is estimated that between 1.3 and1.8 million Kazakhs died during the First Five-Year Plan because of widespread famine, malnutrition, disease, and executions.


Russian-inscribed Memorial to the Kazakh victims of the Great Famine of 1931 – 33.
 An estimated 1.5 million Kazakhs perished because of Soviet practices that resulted in the famine.
This stone sits at Almaty, Kazakhstan.


Ukraine experienced a similar situation. As an ethnic state within the Soviet Union, Ukraine was rich in agrarian resources. Ukrainian farmers prospered, even under the NEP. But unsurprisingly, these prosperous farmers who were considered somewhat distant and lesser cousins of the Russians, were targeted by Stalin for being kulaks and, by extension, “class enemies.” In 1932, the Red Army sealed the border between Ukraine and Russia, prohibiting travel. Then the army moved from one Ukrainian village to another, seizing grain stores and livestock, often indiscriminately murdering the inhabitants. With the kulaks eliminated, the peasants were forced to produce yields that met state quotas. The situation devolved. With the Red Army murdering citizens and seizing crop yields and livestock, the Ukrainian people quickly perished. Those who were not murdered frequently succumbed to malnutrition and starvation as a devastating famine swept through the countryside.

The debate about the nature of the famine that swept over Ukraine in the late 1930s remains. It is often called the Holodomor. The name literally translates to “death inflicted by starvation.” Scholars continue to debate and analyze the Great Famine, to determine if Stalin intentionally murdered the Ukrainian people or if the event was an unintentional byproduct of Soviet agricultural practices. Regardless, conservative estimates claim that 3.5 million Ukrainians died between 1932 – 1933; while others suggest the real number of deaths is nearer to 8 million.


Russian map showing Ukraine’s population loss between 1929 – 1933 under the First Five-Year Plan.
The Holodomor occurred during 1931/2 – 1933. The regions in dark red lost 25% or more of their population.


Still, not everyone approved of Stalin’s measures. His former close ally, Nikolai Bukharin, who edited the Bolshevik paper, the Pravda, strongly opposed Stalin. Russians themselves also opposed the measures of collectivization. By the early 1930s, several thousand people had rallied in opposition to Stalin. In response, Stalin deployed the Red Army, including the artillery, to subdue the population. It would not be the last time this happened; rather it was the start of severe measures against anyone Stalin perceived as opposition.





Under Lenin, the Bolsheviks had encouraged class conflict to such an extent that it severely impacted industry. Workers turned on their employers and businesses and factories shut down. Thus, the party had stepped in and transformed private businesses into state-owned and regulated industries. This produced only marginal economic recovery. And when Stalin took power he understood Russia still lagged a hundred years behind its Western counterparts.


Stalin's Industrialization Campaign


Stalin’s goal for the Soviet Union was to transform it into an industrialized nation on par with the West. On some levels, he came close to achieving it. In twenty years, Russia had been transformed from an agrarian society into an industrialized one. The quality of Russian-made goods remained, however, exceptionally poor in comparison to Western goods.

To finance his industrialization project, Stalin decreed that all profits made from the collectivization process would be used to build factories. Peasants flocked to the city in search of opportunity and work. Heavy industry thrived. Women entered the workforce in droves. In a single decade, women workers comprised nearly forty percent of the Russian workforce. The Russian economy was slowly recovering from years of turmoil.


The Great Terror


Background: Murder of Sergei Kirov


Stalin’s personality had always been described as “harsh,” “brutal,” and “crude” by his Bolshevik comrades. Lenin considered him the most brutal of all comrades and “too crude” for the party’s good. Moreover, Stalin seemed to find the chaos and violence of revolution fascinating. Atop this, Stalin had paranoia that increased enormously over the years. Reportedly, Stalin adopted a paranoia of being assassinated. But a single event in 1934 catapulted his paranoia into his most severe repression of the Russian people.

In December 1934, one of Stalin’s discontented citizens walked into the office of Sergei Kirov, a leading Bolshevik politician in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and a close friend to Stalin. The young man, Leonid Nikolaev, shot Kirov at point-blank range, killing him. For Stalin, the action was far more than the loss of a comrade. It represented a threat on the Bolshevik party, as well as to himself. He responded swiftly. The young assassin was seized and summarily executed. More importantly, Stalin gave the NKVD, head of the police and the secret police, power to arrest and execute enemies of the state freely. Stalin’s Great Purge had begun.


The Great Purge


Purging Political Rivals


Kirov’s death signaled to Stalin that there were enemies within the government, and worse, within his inner circle of comrades. Because Kirov’s assassin had supported Stalin’s old adversary, Grigori Zinoviev, Stalin seized Zinoviev and his partner, Lev Kamenev. He asserted that the two men were behind Kirov’s assassination. Following nearly two years of political maneuvers, Zinoviev and Kamenev were put on a show trial. The court confirmed their guilt and the following morning, the two men who had once worked as Stalin’s allies were executed by firing squad.

Next on Stalin’s list of targets was his former friend, Nikolai Bukharin. The two men had split over Stalin’s economic policies. Ever-paranoid, Stalin accused Bukharin of being a spy and of plotting against him. The trumped-up charges worked. Bukharin was imprisoned, put on show trial before the court, and declared guilty. Before his execution, Bukharin wrote a note to Stalin in which he referred to his friend by his old pseudonym, “Koba, why do you need me to die?”

In addition to purging his political rivals, Stalin believed that the Bolshevik party should be purged at the local level.  For two years, the NKVD arrested and executed alleged enemies of the state. These victims included not only politicians, but also members of the military, members of ethnic groups, and clerics. By the end of 1938, over a million people had been murdered as part of Stalin’s “Great Purge.”




Not every measure undertaken by Stalin and the Bolsheviks was murderous and ill-fated, but they were all undertaken with the intent of creating a totalitarian state. In his transformation of the Russian state, Stalin promoted literacy and compulsory education—at state-run schools. In his first decade as head of the Soviet Union, Stalin ensured that his communist party controlled all education, entertainment, media, businesses, and agriculture. Those who resisted were arrested, executed, or exiled. In his quest for complete control of the Soviet Union, Stalin proved he was exactly what his Bolshevik comrades had claimed years ago—the harshest of them all. And he was proud of it.

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