USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Continuity and Change in Stalin’s Russia

In many ways Stalin was a continuation of older Bolshevik, Leninist ideas; the Soviet Union was always going to be a party-driven state. It was not democratic in Lenin’s time and Stalin simply kept the basic structure, though of course radically reorienting it around himself. Communism was going to advance either way; both Trotsky and Stalin supported agricultural and industrial reform. The Bolsheviks had become the heads of an enormous apparatus of military and police organizations during the Civil War. The Bolshevik cheka would easily become the Soviet Secret Police. Two things, however, changed with Stalin. The first was that a level of intense paranoia that swept over the nation, reflecting Stalin’s personal paranoia and perhaps driven with the intensely fraternal nature of Bolshevik politics. Insiders were the most dangerous. Ideological compromise was, on the surface, impossible. Debate meant potential disloyalty. Those who were most merciless, most subservient to Stalin advanced. Those with any sort of independence, or worst yet, those with any sort of popular appeal or party power, were killed. The ferocity of Stalin’s attack on the population and his own party was something new, reflecting the kind of terror unleashed by the Gestapo against the political enemies of Hitler.

The other big change in Russia—though of course of much lesser significance—came on the cultural level. The early Soviet period had been one on ideals, Utopian dreams, literary, poetic, cinematic, theatrical and artistic experimentation. Things like abstract art, futurist poetry, experimental novels, constructivist theater design and, of course, Eisenstein’s montage cinema were the rave. Even Russians living abroad, like the expressionistic painter Marc Chagall, were enticed to return to Russia to serve in the Soviet cultural administration. By 1930, this honeymoon between the Soviet state and the intellectual avant-garde was over. Eisenstein left Russia. The famous playwright, poet and outspoken Bolshevik Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide. Others were arrested. Others were censured and driven underground or were sent to Siberia to the Gulag. The rest had to conform to the new aesthetic criteria set by Stalin: Soviet Realism. Literature had to be in line with Stalinist ideology. Art had to depict the heroic nature of workers and farmers. In general, all had to be (at least theoretically) accessible to the common man, the worker. And there was a great streak of traditionalism here. No longer were attacks on the family structure permitted, for example. Rather, the family itself would be aligned with Stalinism. Stalin, like Hitler, created both domestic terror and an all-encompassing (a total) political ideology. No part of the life of a Soviet man or woman in this system was empty of political content. What you read, watched, participated in (even in your leisure hours), whom you associated with—in short, all of life became political.

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