When Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, his charismatic henchman Leon Trotsky seemed to be his most obvious successor. Instead it was Joseph Stalin, a man once described by Trotsky as a “dull grey blur” and a “nonentity” who had, by 1929, vanquished his political rivals and seized power for himself.
The self-proclaimed man of steel would rule over the Soviet Union until his death in 1953. Over the course of a little more than two decades he transformed the Soviet Union from a technologically backwards agricultural society into a nuclear-armed superpower.
Remarkable as this feat was, it was achieved through suffering on a colossal scale. Stalin’s Soviet Union was billed as a workers’ paradise, instead it was a terrifying police state presided over by one of history’s most brutal dictators.
10. The Soviet Famine of 1932-33
In 1929 around 80% of Russia’s population worked the land. Their way of life had been largely unchanged for generations, until Stalin launched what has been described as a civil war against the peasant class.
Stalin’s goal was to modernize agriculture in order to drive the rapid industrialization he saw as essential to the Soviet Union’s future. The wealthier peasants, denounced by Stalin as rural capitalists, were executed or deported to prison camps in Siberia. The remainder were stripped of their land and livestock and forced to work the fields of vast state-run collective farms.
Many peasants chose to slaughter their livestock rather than hand it over to the state, resulting in catastrophic shortages. Grain production fell, but state quotas had to be met. The army and the secret police took all that could be found, leaving whole villages to starve. Any peasant found to be stealing a single grain could be shot.
In cities and towns, mass graves were dug. In villages, the corpses were often left piled by the side of the road, the living too weak to bury the dead. As his people suffered and starved, Stalin exported huge quantities of food abroad to fund the industrialization of the Soviet Union. The famine of 1932-33 had been entirely preventable, but it caused the death of millions.
9. The Great Terror
Stalin’s brutal methods and growing power were a cause of grave concern amongst at least some members of the Soviet leadership. In early 1934, at the 17th Congress of the Committee of the Communist Party, Stalin received more than 100 anonymous negative votes. This only strengthened his conviction that enemies and traitors were everywhere, plotting his downfall.
Determined to eradicate any possible threat to his position, Stalin began a purge of his own party, targeting enemies both real and perceived. More than half of the 1,996 who attended the 17th Congress had been arrested by the end of 1939. Most were executed by Stalin’s secret police, others were put to work in the labor camps of icy Siberia; few returned.
The Great Terror was not confined to party elites. Stalin intended to kill anybody who might pose a potential threat; innocence of any actual crime afforded no protection. Intellectuals, scientists, and artists were all targeted. The Red Army was by no means exempt, and thousands of its officers suspected of disloyalty were removed from their posts or executed.
The purges spread like a contagion through the ranks and society. Even the innocent would confess to crimes and name friends and acquaintances as accomplices, anything to make the torture stop. The process would then repeat itself with a new set of victims.
By the end of 1938, as the Great Terror began to wind down, more than a million people had been arrested and half a million executed. Stalin’s grip on power was assured, and all understood that the merest hint of disloyalty or criticism would be met with brutal retribution.
8. The Activities of the NKVD were an Open Secret
The secret police went by numerous different names over the course of the Soviet Union’s 69 years of existence, but from 1934 until Stalin’s death in 1953 they were known as the NKVD. Above the law and separate from the party, the NKVD answered to Stalin alone. It was the instrument through which Stalin inflicted terror on a population of more than 170 million, and one of the main pillars on which his power rested.
An entirely rational fear of the secret police permeated all levels of Soviet society. Almost everybody had a friend or relative who’d vanished never to be seen again. It was understood yet rarely mentioned that the NKVD were responsible for the disappearances. The activities of the secret police were an open secret; to mention their existence carried the very real risk of a visit.
Any man elevated to head of the NKVD wielded power second only to that of Stalin. This made their position a dangerous one. The first chief of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, was himself arrested, tortured, and executed on Stalin’s orders. His successor, Nikolai Yezhov, nicknamed the poison dwarf due to his short stature, suffered the same fate.
7. Stalin’s Right-Hand Man was a Sadist and a Serial Killer
Only an individual of exceptional cruelty and cunning could hope to survive for any great length of time as chief of Stalin’s NKVD. The unassuming-looking Lavrentiy Beria was just such a man. Described by Stalin’s daughter as an evil genius who surpassed even her father in the dark political arts, Beria was perhaps the most depraved of all Stalin’s creatures.
Appointed as chief of the NKVD in place of Nikolai Yezhov, Beria was a sycophantic crawler who did everything in his power to ingratiate himself with Stalin, the man he called “The Boss.” He was also a man who thoroughly enjoyed his job. Reported to be capable of going days on end without sleep, he delighted in presiding over marathon torture sessions.
When Beria wasn’t killing in his professional capacity as Stalin’s attack dog, he did so for his own amusement. His henchmen were under instruction to roam the streets seeking out young women and girls for him to rape and murder.
There’s little doubt that Stalin must have been aware of Beria’s activities, but the Soviet dictator prized loyalty and efficiency over all else and cared nothing for the suffering of others.
Beria’s loyalty, however, was not as complete as Stalin imagined. When Stalin died in 1953, Beria spat on his corpse and smiled. Most likely he believed he would replace his former master as dictator, but with Stalin’s protection lost he was instead arrested and sentenced to death for his many crimes. Beria, the merciless killer, broke down in tears and pleaded for his life. His screams were muffled by a rag stuffed in his mouth before he was shot in the head.
6. Suppression of Religion
Karl Marx famously described religion as the opium of the people. He saw religion as a tool used by the ruling capitalist class to oppress the proletariat. There would be no need for religion in a properly functioning Communist society, and this alone would have been reason enough for Stalin to attempt to eradicate it. However, Stalin had another motivation, too. He hated the idea that his people might believe in a power even greater than his own.
Russian Orthodoxy was the dominant religion in the Soviet Union, but there were also substantial numbers of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others. The process of attempting to stamp out religion began under Lenin, but it accelerated under Stalin. Religious works of literature were banned, and atheism was promoted in schools. Worshippers were harassed, their places of worship closed or even destroyed, and priests and preachers targeted by the secret police.
5. The Great Patriotic War of 1941-45
On June 22, 1941, Hitler’s Nazi Germany launched an attack of unprecedented scale against Stalin’s Soviet Union. The titanic clash between the two totalitarian powers would decide the outcome of World War Two. In the Soviet Union the struggle became known as the Great Patriotic War.
No other nation on earth would have been able to withstand such an enormous attack. Very few individuals in history other than Stalin would have been so inured to the suffering of their people as to pay the price required to repel it.
As the Red Army fell back under the weight of the onslaught, Stalin ordered a scorched earth policy. Wells were poisoned, crops burned in the fields, farm animals slaughtered, and entire towns destroyed. No consideration was given as to how civilians would survive in the blackened wastelands they had once called home.
Stalin demanded that civilians and soldiers alike be prepared to pay any price to keep him in power. The Red Army was the largest army in the world, but its soldiers were badly equipped and trained. To guard against the possibility of them fleeing from the enemy, battalions armed with machine guns were stationed to the rear of the lines of battle, ready to gun down any man who lost their nerve and attempted to escape.
With Germany’s eventual defeat in May 1945, Stalin’s power and international prestige were at an all-time high, but the Soviet Union lost between 20 and 42 million dead.
4. Prisoners of War were Treated as Traitors
When Germany surrendered to the Allies in May 1945 more than six million Red Army soldiers had been taken prisoner by the Germans. Millions more civilians had been captured and put to work as slave laborers in the Reich. Many were now in territory controlled by the British and Americans, and Stalin demanded they be returned to the Soviet Union.
The Western Allies saw no reason to refuse what seemed to be a reasonable request, and from the chaos of post-war Europe some four million people were repatriated. In Stalin’s paranoid mind, however, to be captured by the enemy was in and of itself an act of treachery and betrayal. This applied even to his own family. Stalin’s son had been captured by the Germans in 1941, but the Soviet dictator refused to do a deal to secure his release.
Soldiers and civilians returning to the Soviet Union found themselves fed into camps for interrogation by the NKVD. The lucky ones were eventually freed to return home, but the merest suspicion of having collaborated with the Germans meant execution or a visit to the labor camps of Siberia.
3. The Most Powerful Men in the Soviet Union were Routinely Humiliated
Joseph Stalin did have a sense of humor, but not a healthy one. While he never forgot or forgave a perceived insult to himself, he took great amusement in the suffering and humiliation of others. One of the Soviet dictator’s favorite pastimes was to stay up until the small hours of the morning drinking with his acolytes. Coming as he did from Georgian peasant stock, Stalin was capable of consuming alcohol in prodigious quantities. Frequently, however, he would drink only water whilst forcing his comrades to knock back enough alcohol to reduce them to stumbling, insensible buffoons.
Nikita Khrushchev, who was a powerful enough individual within the Soviet Union to go on to succeed Stalin following the dictator’s death in 1953, recalled how he was once forced to perform a traditional Cossack dance for Stalin’s amusement. The ungainly and awkward Khrushchev possessed many talents, but complicated, physically challenging dance routines were not amongst them. Nonetheless, as Khrushchev later explained, “When Stalin says dance, a wise man dances.”
2. Siberian Gulags
With average temperatures well below freezing throughout winter and into April and thousands of kilometers of land that remains frozen throughout the year, Siberia has long been one of the most unforgiving climates on Earth. Used as a dumping ground for political prisoners and criminals since the mid-1700s, even Stalin had spent some time imprisoned there during the early days of his career as a revolutionary.
The system of Siberian labor camps already existed when Stalin came to power, but they were vastly extended under his rule. Differing from the death camps of Nazi Germany in that they were not explicitly run with the intention of murdering their inmates, conditions in the gulags were nonetheless appalling. Starvation was a constant threat, and it wasn’t unknown for the inhabitants of entire camps, prisoners, guards, and even their dogs, to freeze to death.
Historian Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev estimated that up to six million people may have been sentenced to Stalin’s gulags. Perhaps a million or more of these didn’t survive the experience.
1. The Cult of Stalin
Stalin might have been a ruthless dictator with the blood of millions on his hands, but that wasn’t the image he wanted to project to the people. Soviet propaganda portrayed Stalin as a powerful yet benevolent father figure, a genius who devoted his life in service to the Soviet Union and the protection of its people.
He only rarely appeared in public, but his portrait adorned the wall of every office, factory, classroom, and most people’s homes. Radio and newspapers hailed his genius; schools taught a rewritten version of history, which wildly exaggerated his importance in the momentous events of the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Anybody who spoke of Stalin in anything less than terms of gushing praise was ruthlessly silenced.
Unlike dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini, Stalin was a poor public speaker. But when Stalin finished speaking, the crowds erupted in applause. His audience understood that the NKVD would be watching, and being the first person to stop clapping could be a death sentence.
Stalin’s cult of personality was so successful that the brutal dictator’s death was mourned by millions following his death in 1953.