How far did Stalin set up a personal dictatorship in Communist Russia?

AQA Modern World History GCSE revision notes based on the syllabus.

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The struggle for power 1924-1928

  • After his death in January 1921, several leaders struggled to succeed Lenin.
  • Trotskywas most able, and popular with the army and Party members. He led the Red Army brilliantly during the Civil War, but some people thought that he was too arrogant and he lacked support in the Politburo. He had been a Menshevik and he often made enemies.
  • Zinoviev and Kamenevwere left-wingers who agreed with Trotsky's ideas about State control of land and continuing the revolution. But they were determined to stop Trotsky becoming Party leader. Zinoviev was a popular man and had been a friend of Lenin.
  • Stalin didn't seem likely to lead the party. He had accumulated power through good organization 'behing the scenes' in his work as General Secretary of the Party.
  • Lenin's Testament talked about who might succeed him - he said Trotsky was arrogant but able and said Stalin should be removed from office because he was too rude and ambitious.
  • Trotsky and Stalin had a war of ideas: Trotsky wanted revolution to spread to other countries - he called for the USSR to work for a world revolution. Stalin, however, and most of the Party wanted a period of peace and rebuilding in the USSR - 'Communism in one country'.
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How did Stalin make himself all-powerful?

  • Stalin controlled the party - he appointed people loyal to him to senior Party positions.
  • This meant Stalin's rivals had no support in the Party, and he suppressed Lenin's testament.
  • Only Party members could hold government positions and they were chosen by Party voting.
  • By the late 1920's, Stalin had enough Party support to have his rivals voted out of power and eventually thrown out of the Party altogether.
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How did Stalin remove his main rivals?

  • Stalin joined Zinoviev and Kamenev against Trotsky - who was dismissed as Commissar for War in 1924. 'Communism in one country' became Party policy in 1925.
  • Trotsky was isolated and thrown out of the Communist Party in 1927.
  • New members were elected to the Politburo who were loyal to Stalin. At this time, Stalin supported the NEP and gradual reform of the economy - the 'Leftist' Zinoviev and Kamenev were dismissed from the Politburo in 1926 because they believed in fast economic modernisation (one of Trotsky's main ideas). They joined Trotsky to protest against Stalin and were exiled in 1928.
  • Trotsky was also exiled to Siberia in 1928, and was forced to leave the USSR in 1929.
  • But in 1928, Stalin adopted fast modernisation instead of NEP. This swing to the left meant he could now remove the leading figures on the 'right' of the Party, such as Bukharin and Rykov who supported the NEP, and could have been a threat to his position.
  • By 1930, Stalin was in complete control as leader of the Party and the USSR.
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The Great Purges 1

  • The Kirov murder began a Purge.
  • Kirov was the popular head of the Party in Leningrad — he was murdered in 1934.
  • Some historians think Stalin was responsible for his death — in 1956 Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, blamed Stalin for the murder, but there is no clear proof.
  • Immediately Stalin ordered a purge of people he believed were involved in a conspiracy against Kirov and against himself — but Kirov’s murderer was never put on trial.
  • ‘Old’ Communists like Zinoviev and Kamenev were arrested and charged in 'Show Trials'. They were forced by torture or threats to confess to betraying Stalin, between 1935-36.
  • No-one knows exactly what was true and what was invented by Stalin’s torturers.
  • One claim was that the exiled Trotsky was plotting with senior leaders to take power.
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The Great Purges 2

  • Soon the Purges reached ordinary people.
  • Anyone suspected of disloyalty to Stalin was taken away by the NKVD (the new secret police).
  • Most were shot or sent to Labour camps.
  • People who wanted to avoid arrest did so by providing information about others - even if it was false.
  • By 1939 approximately 3 million people were dead and 9 million were political prisoners.
  • Stalin’s wife killed herself (or was murdered) in 1932, after a purge at the University where she was a teacher.
  • In 1937 the exiled Trotsky condemned Stalin’s Purges from his home in Mexico, calling for a new revolution. In 1940 he was murdered by one of Stalin’s agents.
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The results of the Purges

  • The terror slowed down by the end of the 1930s, but it had serious consequences.
  • Many of the most gifted and able citizens had disappeared - killed or sent to camps.
  • The army and navy were seriously weakened by the loss of most senior officers.
  • Industrial and technical progress was hampered by the loss of top scientists and engineers.
  • In 1936 a new Constitution was brought in - freedom of speech and free elections were given to the Russian people. This move proved only to be cosmetic as only Communists were allowed to run and only approved newspapers / magazines could be published. Power was kept in the Politburo.
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Censorship and propaganda

  • Artists and writers had to follow the Party line, creating ‘useful’ art for the workers.
  • Newspapers, cinema and radio spread propaganda about the heroic workers’ struggle and Stalin’s great leadership and personality. Criticism was banned.
  • History was re-written so that Stalin became more important in the story of the October Revolution than he really had been at the time.
  • Trotsky became a ‘non-person’ - his name was removed from history books and articles and his picture was rubbed out of old photos as though he had never existed.
  • Photographs were altered to show Stalin as a close friend and ally of Lenin.
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Communist attitudes towards the Church

  • Religion was called the ‘opium of the people’ by Marx.
  • The Russian Orthodox Church had been a powerful supporter of the Tsar.
  • The Communist government began to take Church property and land - these were valuable assets for the Party. Christians were persecuted as a political threat to Communism and Priests were murdered or exiled.
  • In 1929 the Church was banned from any activity except leading worship.
  • By 1939, a few hundred Churches remained active - the state claimed the promise of free conscience in the 1936 constitution was being honoured.
  • Many people were still believers - nearly half the population in 1940.
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Stalin's dictatorship

  • Stalin ran everything - his policies were often completely different from Communist ideas.
  • Party ‘apparatchiks’ - members loyal to Stalin - received privileges like holidays, flats etc.
  • Most people lived in fear but were unable to speak out.
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E. Frostydino


A few typos but reeaally really helpful for revising this topics, it pretty much covers everthing i was looking for i.e. the events leading up to Stalin's gain of power and the show trials.

Only thing is, could you explain a bit more about "his policies were often completely different from communist ideas" do you have an example of this we can use?

Thanks again x



really good information ^^

Thanks :)

Although, it would have been nice if you could include a section on how Stalin didn't set up a personal dictatorship.. exams have to have a two way argument so far this is just one way argument......

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