Questioning a Soviet citizen: What was the nature of the Stalinist state?

Answer: Well, back in the days of Lenin, he thought that in order to shift from capitalism to socialism, the state needed to have temporary dictatorship over the people until the counter-revolutionaries were gone. But of course… the government never really lost it’s control over us, and this is still going on under Stalin. Of course, some say that Stalin is acting as a dictator just for himself, and not for the good of the proletariat.

Questioning a Western historianWhy do you think that Stalin’s dictatorship was personal and not necessarily for the proletariat?

Answer: Stalin had such a strong control over the Communist Party. I mean, he was the General Secretary from 1922, and he would’ve quickly realized how important his position was within the structure of the party. Some people even say that this is the fault of Lenin, since he ignored Trotsky’s warnings on the growing power of Stalin through his General Secretary position. He managed to stick the people supporting him into positions of power, allowing for him to defeat his opponents. For example, by 1930, he had replaced all the existing Politburo members with those who supported him, ensuring that he would always have agreement. As a result of this, Stalin had the ultimate control within party and state institutions.

One could also look at the Soviet Constitution of 1936. Stalin said that “the constitution of the USSR is the only thoroughly democratic constitution in the world”. The constitution writes that every citizen would have the right to vote, unlike before as the “bourgeois” classes (kulaks, priests) couldn’t vote. It also called for civil rights like freedom of press and religion, and guaranteed employment. Of course, everyone thought that this was a joke. After all, it was clear in the constitution that the democracy allowed would only be within the limits of the Communist government, and only Communist Party candidates could participate in elections. In fact, it is often thought that the Constitution was worded in this way due to foreign countries as well. The Soviet Union wanted to show how they were different from fascist countries, with the USSR less strict regarding  human rights.

Aside from this… he was also quite skilled at using terror, with the help of the secret police (NKVD). He eliminated opposition from both the Left and the Right, and instigated The Great Terror, when many party officials were purged. As a result of this, he had much loyalty from his subjects.

Follow up question: Well, you make Stalin seem like this all-powerful dictator. Don’t you think there were some limits to his control? 

Answer: Of course! Indeed there was! How could there not be limits to Stalin’s power?

First of all, just think about Stalin’s personal limits. He was just one guy – there is no way that he would’ve been able to control every single issue in the Soviet Union.

Additionally, there’s also the limits imposed by the Politburo. Although Stalin did remove most of his opposition, he did sometimes still face disagreements within the Politburo. Of course, it’s hard to know much about these conflicts, since they were kept relatively secret. Still, we know some things – Stalin had overly high targets for the second Five-Year Plan, so the Politburo redrafted the plan with lower targets. And, when Stalin wanted to execute Ryutin in 1932, the Politburo refused, so Ryutin was sentenced to ten years in a labor camp instead.

Moreover, we also have to look at the limits imposed from below. Only recently have social historians found that there may have been significant pressure for Stalin from lower level party members. These members were worried about foreign enemies, and wanted to strengthen socialism. So perhaps Stalin was just trying to listen to these members when he implemented policies for rapid industrialization. Separately, Stalin did have control over the purges from the top, but it was up to the local officials to execute these plans, and there was little Stalin could do in this realm.

Questioning another Western historianWhy in the world did the Great Terror of the 1930s occur?

Answer: Some historians blame Stalin’s personality. They think that it is simply due to the weaknesses of Stalin’s personality, and his own slight mental instability. After all, he did once tell Khruschev, “I trust nobody, not even myself.” And he signed many death warrants, keeping lists of victims in booklets and personally indicating their fate next to their name.

You could also think about the historical roots of this event. According to the liberal school, Stalin’s use of terror was just a continuation of trends established by Lenin, which came after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Hence, it came out of bolshevism.

Other historians think that Stalin’s use of terror can be traced back to Russian traditions, back to leaders like Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. They think that it was necessary due to the economic regression at the time. However, serious scholars criticize this theory for overlooking the individual circumstances surrounding each leader.

Furthermore, you have the opposition to economic policies. With the economic failures after the various Five-Year Plans, many concerns started to arise from citizens, even those within the Party. As a result of this opposition, Stalin had to use the Great Terror to safeguard the revolution he was trying to promote.

Finally, there is the pressure from “below”, as much tension developed even at the local level, with average party members denouncing local communist officials. Stalin and the leadership would have had difficulty in trying to control this.