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Perhaps the most significant phase of the Russian Revolution was carried out by Joseph Stalin, for it was Stalin, not Lenin or Trotsky, who truly created the structures and character of the new Soviet Union. Stalin would rule as lone dictator from 1927 until his death in 1953. His vision of politics affected every person in Russia and much of the world. His legacy remains hugely important for understanding how the world considers politics today. Let us mention three aspects of Stalin’s early reign. We will come back to Soviet Russia in the 1930s in a subsequent chapter.
We know that Lenin, facing economic disaster, backtracked on communist economic principles and instituted a limited capitalism after the Civil War, a policy known as NEP. As a result, the Russian economy grew in the 1920s and finally reached its pre-1914 level of production around 1927. By 1927, Stalin was convinced that the time was right for a massive drive toward industrialization. Only heavy industrialization could put Russia on even footing with the other great powers in the world. Russia's defeat in WWI, for Stalin, proved that the huge land empire was far from its former power and that smaller and more dynamic nations, like Germany and Japan, were better equipped for modern warfare. In addition, the Bolsheviks depended on the support of industrial labor, in many respects as a counter-balance to their lack of support among the peasantry, the vast majority of Russians. Increased industrialization, therefore, meant at the same time a huge growth in the raw numbers and the collective strength of the working class. This, in turn, meant a solidification of Bolshevik power. Lenin had made industrialization a priority from the beginning, and yet until the economic situation settled down, there could be little progress. By the late 1920s, Stalin believed the time was right to move forward with industrial communism, itself to be build on massive agricultural reform.
Before launching his socially destabilizing programs, Stalin first moved to sure up his support, a move that required breaking with and expelling all rivals from the Politburo and other positions of power. When this was done, another major obstacle stood in Stalin’s way before he could push a major industrialization campaign. This was Russia’s long-standing problem of peasant agriculture. Industrialization required two things: 1) a huge surplus of cheap food, and 2) a huge reservoir of labor. The existing peasant agricultural structure was an obstacle to both. After the reforms brought about by NEP, the peasants were happy enough to remain on small farms. The farmers could set prices for grain, which meant that Stalin could not count on low grain prices. Moreover, NEP policies had led to a certain amount of land consolidation and the rise of a relatively well-to-do group of peasants, called kulaks by the Bolsheviks. These kulaks were seen by Stalin as the archenemies of the Russian state. Stalin was determined to break what he perceived as their hold on the nation’s agricultural production, to reorganize the entire agricultural sector under the Bolshevik bureaucracy, and to rid the nation of the traditional peasant relationship to the land. It was a plan called the “Collectivization of Agriculture.”
The "Collectivization of Agriculture" called for the state to take control of all lands and to order agricultural production according to its needs. Peasants would either work the lands for wages or transfer into the emerging industrial sector to work in factories or mines. Soviet collectivization was a massive undertaking, one that affected tens of millions of people. Nothing in history, not the British enclosure system, not the North American plantation or the South American hacienda, had come close to the radicalization of Stalin’s agricultural transformation. As opposition mounted to Stalin’s collectivization plans, his tenacity grew. A new type of systematic violence, much of it on Stalin’s direct orders, started to define the Bolshevik party. The Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, dramatically increased its reign of terror. Starting in 1930, hundreds of thousands of peasants were driven from their land. Hundreds of thousands more were murdered upon Stalin’s command that the so-called kulaks be “liquidated as a class.” “Kulak” was a convenient term for Stalin, to be applied liberally in order to justify his brutal tactics.
The results of the collectivization were both resounding success and horrible failure. The success was that the state, indeed, broke the traditional peasant structures and reorganized the agricultural sector under its bureaucratic apparatus. The failures were many. First, hundreds of thousands of people were either killed or deported to Siberia. This left much of the land simply uncultivated. Many other peasants decided that instead of handing over their livestock to the Bolsheviks, they would slaughter their flocks, a practice that caused massive food shortages. The Ukraine, Russia’s largest grain producing region and the most independent of the subjected peoples within the Soviet domain, witnessed popular unrest and tremendous Bolshevik brutality. Severe famine was the result of the state-induced cataclysm in the Ukraine by 1932-1933. The famine left between three and four million people dead.