Stalin: Red Terror


"Stalin:  Red Terror" is the biography of the man who ruled the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1953. His life story is a window on the history of the USSR for much of the twentieth century. It will be useful for students of history, political science, and those seeking to understand current events and the issues faced by Russia today.



Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, Koba, the "Man of Steel," or Stalin, was born in Georgia, was educated at the Tiflis Theological Seminary from which he was expelled for "propagating Marxism." He joined the Bolshevik underground and was arrested and transported to Siberia. He escaped in 1904.

The ensuing years witnessed his closer identification with revolutionary Marxism, his many escapes from captivity, his growing intimacy with Lenin and Bukharin, his early disparagement of Leon Trotsky, and his co-option, in 1912, to the illicit Bolshevik Central Committee.

With the Revolution of 1917 and the replacement of Kerensky's weak Provisional Government by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Stalin was appointed Commissar for Nationalities and a member of the Politburo, although his activities throughout the counter-revolution and the war with Poland were confined to organizing political control of Tsaritsin (Stalingrad). With his appointment as General Secretary to the Central Committee in 1922, Stalin began to build up the power that would guarantee his control of the Soviet Union after Lenin's death. When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin took control. By 1928, Trotsky had been both expelled from the Party and banished.

Stalin's reorganization of the Soviet's resources through successive Five Year Plans suffered numerous industrial setbacks and encountered consistently stubborn resistance in agriculture, where the kulaks refused to accept the principles of collectivization. The measures taken by Stalin to discipline those who opposed his will involved the death by execution or famine of at least 10 million peasants while purges and staged "show trials" of counter-revolutionaries and deviationists eliminated the Old Bolsheviks and the alleged right-wing intelligentsia. This was followed by the dramatic purge of thousands of the Officer corps of the Red Army which brought the "Red Terror" to a close.

Millions of people died in the purges. Several hundreds of thousands were executed by firing squad and millions were forcibly resettled. Many were imprisoned and tortured or sent to labor camps, both functioning as part of the GULAG system. Many died at the labor camps due to starvation, disease, exposure and overwork. The Great Purge was started under the NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda, but the height of the campaigns occurred while the NKVD was headed by Nikolai Yezhov, from September 1936 to August 1938; this period is sometimes referred to as the Yezhovshchina ("Yezhov era"). However the campaigns were carried out according to the general line, and often by direct orders, of Party politburo headed by Stalin.

In particular, in 1937 the Politburo issued an order to apply "means of physical coercion" to the accused, which translated into torture and extra-judicial murders.

By the summer of 1938, Stalin and his circle realized that the purges had gone too far, and Yezhov was relieved as head of the NKVD, later arrested on charges of espionage and treason, tried, found guilty, and shot. Lavrenty Beria, a fellow Georgian and Stalin confidante, succeeded him as head of the NKVD. On November 17, 1938 a joint decree of the Politburo and the Central Committee cancelled most of the NKVD orders of systematic repression and suspended implementation of death sentences. This signaled the end of massive, overzealous purges.

Nevertheless, the practice of mass arrest and exile was continued until Stalin's death in 1953.

Soviet forces and material went to the support of the Spanish Communist government in 1936, although Stalin was careful not to commit himself too deeply. After the Munich crisis Franco-British negotiations for Russian support in the event of war were protracted until the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which bought Stalin some time he thought he needed to prepare for a German invasion. In 1941 the success of the Nazis' initial thrust into Russia can be accounted for in part by the lack of adequate preparation by the Red Army as well as the incompetence of many of its new officers. Stalin's strategy followed the traditional Muscovite pattern of plugging gaps in the defenses with more and more bodies and trading space for time until imposing climatic conditions could whittle away the opponents' strength. Sustained by material furnished by Britain an the United States, the Red Army responded to Stalin's call to defend not the principles of Marx and Engels, but "Mother Russia."

Quick to exploit the unwarranted Anglo-American fear that Russia might get out of the war, Stalin easily outwitted the allied leaders of the Teheran and Yalta Conferences. With the Red Army's invasion of German soil, Soviet soldiers were encouraged to penetrate far beyond the point where they had last been employed. Thus Stalin's dominance of the Potsdam Conference, followed by the premature break up of the Anglo-American forces, left Stalin with a territory enlarged by more 180,0000 square miles which, with satellites, increased the Soviet sphere of influence by more than 760,00 square miles. While Stalin consolidated his gains an "iron curtain" was dropped to cut off Soviet Russia and her satellites from the outside world. At the same time, a Cold War ensued between east and west.

An entirely unscrupulous man, Stalin consistently manipulated Communist imperialism for the greater glory of Soviet Russia and the strengthening of his own person as autocrat. He died, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, on March 5, 1953.


Discussion Questions


  1. How did Josef Stalin's childhood affect his adult life? Why do you think he changed his name from Josef Dzhugashvili to Josef Stalin?
  2. What are the tenets of Marxism? How did Lenin modify this ideology? How did Lenin and the Bolsheviks take over the government?
  3. Stalin is described as a man of action, not a man of ideas. Do you agree or disagree? Why did Lenin find Stalin useful? Why, eventually,did Lenin not trust Stalin ?
  4. Karl Marx wrote that religion was "the opiate of the people." What does that mean? Do you agree or disagree?
  5. Why were collective farms a failure? How did Stalin's agricultural policies contribute to the famine?
  6. What role did propaganda have in the Soviet Union under Stalin? How did Stalin use propaganda to strengthen his regime?
  7. Describe Stalin's "reign of terror". Did most Soviets believe Stalin was responsible? Why did so many Soviets mourn the death of Stalin?
  8. Was Stalin a hero or a villian?  Should he be remembered fondly by the people of Russia today?


Consulting your textbook, notes, and Roger Ebert's interview with Andrei Konchalovsky, and the online notes concerning the Stalin Debate discuss and give your opinion on Ivan Sanshin's experiences in Stalin's Russia.  What accounts for Sanshin's disillusionment with Soviet Communism?  Was Stalinism a continuation of Leninism or a deviation from true Bolshevism? Why or why not? Use the correct political vocabulary terms.

Write out your answers on the AP Comparative Government Blackboard Discussion Board no later than midnight Sunday, January 29.

AP Comparative Government Russia Unit The Inner Circle