Stalin's Dictatorship: USSR, 1924-41

AQA GCSE History B Unit 2: Chapter 4: Stalin's dictatorship, 1924-41


Stalin a personal dictator in communist Russia?

Lenin died- USSR just been created, NEP started economic recovery, but industry & agriculture still producing less that before WW1.

Later 1920s: Stalin consolidated position, eliminated other contenders for leadership, especially Trotsky (main threat). 

1928: able to start rapid modernisation of USSR- censorship tightened, communist propaganda controlled the minds of the population. Disloyalty, or possible rivalry, resulted in death. Ordinary people lived in fear. 

By end of 1930s: country transormed, allowing the USSR to defend against Hitler's attack in 1941.

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Death and funeral of Lenin

January 1924: Lenin died of a brain haemorrhage aged 53, invalid during 1923- strokes left him speechless. Stalin and other Politburo memers arranged funeral.

Lenin: hero to ordinary Russians, >1 million filed past body in Kremlin, body enbalmed and put on display in mausoleum in Red Square in Moscow. Image seen everywhere- partly government led, reflected feelings of many who worshipped him as well. City of Petrograd renamed Leningrad in his honour.

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Background of Stalin and Trotsky


  • leading government figure
  • General Secretary of Communist Party- controlled much government machinery
  • loyal to Lenin on Bolshevik Central Committe in 1917
  • humble origins.


  • Committed member of BOlshevik Party from 1917
  • Jewish, tried to organise international support for communism
  • Became chairman of Petrograd Soviet 1917- organised takeover of city Oct/Nov 1917 Rev
  • Lenin's right-hand man during Civil War- organised Red Army, directed military operations
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Lenin's testament

1922: Lenin had been worried about Stalin's growing power within the parrty. In his 'testament' or will, he summarised his views on the party leaders, particularly criticising Stalin. 

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Stalin and Trotsky's claims to power


  • Controlled party machine as General Secretary, excellent organiser, important power base, appointed junior officials who owed their positions to him, so supported him
  • Had been loyal to Lenin, seen as his right-hand man, got photographs altered
  • Wanted to build up Communism, make USSR a strong power instead of spread communism
  • Organised Lenin's funeral- Stalin dedicated to memory of Lenin


  • Carried out actual takeover of Petrograd
  • Led the Red Army to victory- brilliant leader
  • Clever- able to gain enthusiastic support when speaking, powerfeul writer
  • Supported Karl Marx's original aim of communism spreading to all developed countries- opposite to Stalin's policy of 'Socialism in one country' with 'World Revolution'
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Communist rule in late 1920s

No preparations for Lenin's successor- Politburo in control of government. USSR- only communist government in the world- many foreign enemies and internal problems. 

Under Lenin:

  • Strict control of media
  • Books, newspapers, films censored
  • Only important thing in life was service to the State, not freedom of the individual
  • Propaganda techniques developed- Bolshevik achievements in 1917 glorified and exaggerated


  • Developed these strategies to win power struggle following Lenin's death
  • Showed himself as natural successor to Lenin in propaganda speeches- quoted Lenin- Trotcky said to be Jew who intended to destroy Lenin's achievements by introducing own policies
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Power Struggle

1925: Trotsky had few supporters in Politburo, dismissed as Commissar for War. 
1926: farming very primitive, Trotsky wanted rapid change- State control of agriculture. Zinoviev and Kamanev's support. But, Stalin persuaded majority to continue to mave slowly with NEP.
1926: Trotsky, Zinoviev & Kamanev dismissed from Politburo.
1927: Zinoviev & Trotsky expelled from Communist Party- places to Stalin supporters such as Bukharin. 
1928: Stalin said time to end NEP criticise supporters- expelled from Politburo.
1929: Trotsky expelled from USST- Stalin in complete control of government.

Stalin took charge at Lenin's funeral. Lenin's wife wanted his testamnet published, but Stalin persuaded the Central Committe not to (Stalin was criticised more than others in it).

Trotsky wanted to spread communism to other countries- policy of Continuous Revolution.

Most Russians wanted stability and sided with Stalin including Kamanev and Zimoniev who had ben respected Bolshevik leaders under Lenin.

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Communist Party control over government

Stalin controlled Politburo, Politburo controlled all government departments- all policies imposed by Stalin and his supporters. 

Cheka, Lenin's secret police, became the OGPU in 1922, and the NKVD in 1934.

This body ensured that no-one openly critices communism or Stalin.

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1936 Constitution

1918: Lenin quickly introduced a constitution.
1924: replaced by new one recognising creation of USSR.
1936: Bukharin wrote a new one guarenteeing people their right including freedom of speech and religion.

Supreme Soviet would be elected by everyone aged 18+ in a secret ballot:

  • Only Commnist Party members allowed to be candidates
  • Only met 2 weeks a year
  • Stalin controlled ruling committe of the party that had real power

NKVD acted outside constitution: they could do whatever they wanted, imprisonment or murder for anyone under suspicion. 

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Purges of the 1930s


  • Stalin never felt secure- aware that some old Bolsheviks were cleverer that he was
  • Convenient way of excusing failure and setbacks- if targets weren't met, failure could be blamed on sabotage, provided reasons for getting rid of enemies of teh State
  • Evidence that Stalin suffered from paranoia, or that he enjoyed cruelty- some tried to excuse him by saying he was a weak character.
  • Unified the country, appealed to nationalism and loyalty at a crucial time- USSR increasingly threatened from abroad especially with expanding control of Easter Europe by Hitler.


  • Dec 1934: murder of Sergei Kirov- young, popular communist working in Leningrad.
  • Announced that murder was part of terrorist conspiracy to kill Stalin- leading communists arrested on false charges of terrorism
  • Excuse for Stalin to mount a wave of arrests with punishments of hard labour or execution
  • Now thought likely that Kirov was murdered on Stalin's orders.
  • Kirov was popular, had criticised the cruel aspects of the collectivisation of agriculture in early 1930s and seen as a possible future leader.
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Show Trials

New decrees gave NKVD power to organise trials of 'crimes against the State'- no witnesses or appeals, torture to extract a confession, failure to inform NKVD of a traitor: 20 years in prison.

Kulaks became enemies of the State during collectivisation, tried and shot or labour camps. Labour camps (gulags) grew in number and size during 1930s- near staration, constructed railways, canals or indistrial cities such as Magnitogorsk.

Show trials justified sentences on the accused: old Bolsheviks found guilty and shot, Zinoviev, Kamanev and 14 others shot in 1936 accused of plotting to assassinate Stalin with Trotsky. Victims humiliated by State prosecuter.

Second major Show Trial in 1937, 17 leading Bolsheviks accused of spying for Germany and Japan, all confessed, 13 shot. 

Nearly 1 million lower-ranking party officials accused of less serious crimes, thrown out of party, sent ot labour camps or shot. Members of NKVD charged with treason. Head of NKVD (Yagoda) dismissed from post and shot. Many lower-ranking NKVD men accused of deliberately not rounding up enough traitors, executed.

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The Great Terror

Millions of people, different backgrounds, arrested and shot or sent to labour camps- targets set of each town/city leading to random killings, 12 million dies from execution or appalling conditions of labour camps.

NKVD had spies everywhere- could arrest almost anyone, punish with little evidence, people denounced others to avoid arrest themselves, those who informed on work collegues more likely to get promotion or better housing.

Arrested, interrogates, shot or sent to labout camps- worked in terrible conditions, 20% died each year fom cold or starvation, given brutally difficult jobs.

Russians could be proud of achievements under Stalin, but many had little idea of the conditions in which the achievements were made. 

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Purging of armed forces

1937: attention onto armed forces- terrified leading officers could easily end dictatorship, 8 generals & experience Red Army leaders secretly tried and executed, 75/80 on Supreme Military Council executed, all army ranks purged.

Armed forces crippled when Stalin was most worried about Hitler who talked of Germany needing Lenensraum and clearly threatening Poland and the USSR.

August 1939: Germany and USSR signed Nazi-Soviet Pact, promising not to attack each other- directed Hitler's expansions west, able to gain half of Poland as an extra buffer zone against any later threat.

June 1941: Nazi attack came, armed forces were recpvering from worst excesses of the purges.

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The cult of personality

1930s: Stalin used control of gevernment to present humself as a caring, friendly leader. Writers, film-makers and artists were told to produce works that praised Stalin's achievements.

History was rewritten to give Stalin an important role under Lenin in the early days of communism.

Dissenters were punished, such as the writer Solzenitsyn, who criticised Stalin's rule and was sentenced to 8 years in one of Stalin's labout camps.

Musicians expected to compose popular piece celebrating achievement of Soviet workforce in modernisation of the country. 

Propaganda posters featuring Stalin and happy Russian workers were common: visual images helped to spread the desired message of happy workers striving for success.

Shostakovich had been brought up under communist rule in USSR. Proud to be Rusian but hated excesses of communist dictatorship- had to be careful how he expressed himself in music to escape criticism and punishment.

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USSR Economic situation, late 1920s

1921: NEP introduced by Lenin, allowed peasants to own land and sell surplus- incentives for greater food production, kulaks became quite well off some employing others to work on their land, many peasants resented the more priviledged position of kulaks.

Despite food production increasing in 1920s, problems limited this growht- peasants who owned their small plots of land used mostly primitive methods little machinery and low yields, little industrial development, vulnerable to attack from Europe, needed more industry for weapons but more people in cities needed more food, needed machinery from abroad for industrialisation, paid for through export of food.

1929: Stalin decided to abandon NEP, new policies neant that the State took direct control of agriculture and industry to ensure higher levels of production and strengthen the position of the USSR so that it could withstand any invasion.

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Theory: large farms would be more productive than small plots of land. Large farms -colectives-  could use machinery such as tractors and combine harvesters. Stalin aware that many peasants weren't Communist Party members so not sure if he could rely on them.

1929: collectivisation began- 25 million peasant farms combined to form 240,000 collective farms (kolkhoz). Most peasants opposed giving up their land, killed livestock and burnt buildings instead of handing them over to State- kulaks had most to lost, Stalin tried to destroy them as a class, all kulaks imprisoned, shot or transported to Siberia. 

Destruction of livestock: animal population halved in 3 years, along with collectivisation disruption, led to famine 1931-33 where about 6 million died.

Production levels increased in later 1930s, many peasants remained in extreme poverty. Grain exported and to feed cities. Locally controlled kolhoz supervised by Soviet Party officials, surplus taken away, so they needed an incentive to work hard. 

Those who worked hard got benefits: school and hospitals, pride in their achievements.

Later in 1930s, peasant families allowed to have a small individual plot with a cow and several pigs or sheep.

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Industrialisation: the Five Year Plans

Stalin realised industrial modernisation was essential for agriculture, defence, and being shown as competitive with other industrialised countries. 

The First Five Year Plan (1928-32) aimed to expand heavy industry- considerable success, number or industrial workers doubled, new cities built around industrial areas, GOSPLAN (government agency respponsible for the programme) achieved considerable success, though rarely achieved over-ambitious targets set.

The Second Five Year Plan (1933-37) concentrated on making machines.

The Third Five Year Plan (1938-42) aimed to produce more consumer goods for loyal Soviet citizens- quickly transformed into building weapons which proved necessary when Germany invaded in June 1941.

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The building of Magnitogorsk

Huge scal projects often achieved, despite a loack of experienced workers, foreign experts sometimes helped with planning. When production started, managers were under great pressure to meet targets so they either a) cut corners in the production process leading to bad quality goods, or b) lied about production figures- government statistics in the 1930s are liable to be inaccurate. 

New factories constructed with little attention to safety, many workers seriously injured or died- scaffolding collapsing, pig-iron blast furnaces cause burns, conscripted workers had little or no education so couldn't read, Siberian workers on huge projects had never seen electricity or even an upper floor before.

Some impressive achievements- hydroelectric dams e.g. Dnieper Dam, and Moscow Underground Railway were admired by Russians and foreigners; over 100 new cities built; most industrial areas in Siberia to ensure protection from an attack from Western Europe.

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Economic, political, social consequences of plans

Succeeded in expanding industry in the 1930s- when Germans invaded, sufficient progress allowed effective resistance, USSR transformed while other countries were suffering from Great Depression.

Mixed social consequences- millions died on the projects, peasant families uprooted, harsh working conditions, accidental damage sabotage absenteeism & lateness= crime, but hardworkers and succeeders treated like heroes (Alexei Stakhonov, Aug 1935, 14x average workload, praised medals, went around w=giving lecutres on imporiving productivity, successfully copied = Stakhonovites).

Rapid growth in cities, housing couldn't keep up with demand- dormitories, families in one room. Living conditions gradually improved- electricity, radios, free educations and hospitals, central heating, new buildings and Moscow Underground. Foundations laid for USSR to become a superpower.

Stalin in power until death in 1953 when USSR controlled much of Eastern Europe, developed atomic bomb, 2nd most powerful country in world.

Industrialisation in 1930s was harsh, but achieved results that no-one living at the time could've predicted. 

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