Josef Stalin was a much feared and reviled dictator who was responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens. It has been noted that “he is the man who turned the Soviet Union from a backward country into a world superpower at unimaginable human cost.” (pbs.org/redfiles) [30 Jan 2010]. Born 1879 in Georgia to a poor, dysfunctional family, Stalin was regularly beaten by his violent father and developed a bad relationship with his religious mother, who sent him to a religious school to study to become a priest. Stalin did not complete his studies but instead was drawn towards the cities active revolutionary scene.
It has been suggested that the violence he suffered at the hands of his father played a major role in developing his strength and determination (pbs.org/redfiles) [30 Jan 2010]. However, there are many other contributory factors that should be taken into consideration when evaluating Stalin’s rise to power, including the various posts he held, his willingness to maintain Lenin’s legacy and the weakness of his main rival, Leon Trotsky. Historical interpretation is an effective way for historians to translate the past into a meaningful sequence of events; however, the interpretation will vary depending on which historical schools viewpoint is being portrayed. The following paragraph will evaluate two aspects from a historiography from The Liberal School and the Party History point of view.
The Liberal School focus on the personality of Stalin and compare his strengths directly to others weaknesses. They believe that Stalin’s personal qualities were the main contributory factors in his rise to power, which is opposed by the Party History approach. This approach argues that it was not Stalin’s personal traits that helped him to succeed but instead was linked to the structure and growth of the Bolshevik Party. This approach relates Stalin’s rise to power back to the structures that Lenin had put in place and believes that Stalin was merely a continuity of that framework. The Liberal School have an intentional approach, meaning they think that Stalin intended to take power. Stalin has been accused of being brutal and cruel by the Liberal School and for manipulating events preceding Lenin’s death to his advantage; whereas, this is undermined by the Party History’s opinion that Stalin only used an already existing structure and that this along with Stalin’s post of as General Secretary was what assisted the rise of Stalin (Phillips 2000).
Although these approaches are useful sources of information when looking at different historical periods, it is important to keep in mind that they will depend on what factors the historian focuses on and what key points they use. The historian can choose to believe parts or all of various ideas about history, in this case Stalin’s rise to power; therefore, these opinions and beliefs should be examined critically before being adopted as factual. The validity of the information can be influenced by a variety of things, for example, the Liberal School gives the Western point of view, which is directly opposed to communism so therefore wanted to discredit what was happening in the Soviet Union. They aim to achieve this by focusing on the cost to human life brought about by Stalinism. The Party History approach however can be accused of putting too much emphasis on the structural forces and discounting the ability of the individual to act of their on accord and to be held accountable for their actions.
Stalin participated in the mundane tasks of revolutionary activity such as distributing the party literature, organizing the workers and robbing trains to support the cause. Lenin appreciated his loyalty and appointed him to low-key positions in the new Soviet government and thereafter he progressed rapidly to a position of power when he was elected for the role of General Secretary. This role was widely thought of as unimportant and dull; however, as General Secretary Stalin had access to personal files and could appoint people of his choosing to positions within the party and by doing so, many people were indebted to Stalin and would therefore not oppose him. Stalin’s various roles also gave him a perfect insight into who could be trusted to support him and who could not (Paley 1971). By the time people realised what was happening, it was too late and by this point Lenin was seriously ill, therefore not able to stop or alter the situation. Under these circumstances, Stalin was even able to control who had access to Lenin, who towards his death, had written a testament opposing Stalin’s conduct with a recommendation that he be removed from his powerful role as General Secretary and that Trotsky would be a more suitable successor. Leading communists decided not to publish Lenin’s testament as it contained criticisms of them as well as Stalin and Lenin died before any action could be taken.
Even before Lenin’s death, Stalin and Trotsky, along with Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin were emerging as contenders to take his place, which meant Trotsky’s brilliance was about to go head to head with Stalin’s cunning. Trotsky seemed unprepared to fight for leadership and was easily out manoeuvred by Stalin, in fact his reason for not attending Lenin’s funeral was that he had been given the wrong date by Stalin. Trotsky was originally thought of as the most obvious choice with his great mind and intelligent speeches. Trotsky had played a lead role in the October Revolution (Phillips 2000) and he had gained a lot of support during the Civil War. Stalin, on the other hand was seen as an insignificant administrator at that time; however, he had made many wise moves in his various roles and many underestimated him.
When the Social Democrats split in 1903, Trotsky became a member of the Menshevik faction and developed his ‘Permanent Revolution’ theory, a belief that communism should spread beyond Russia. This theory had less support than Stalin’s belief of ‘Socialism in one Country.’ Trotsky had spent many years away from Russia after escaping from exile in Siberia but returned after the 1917 February Revolution. Upon his return, he changed his allegiances by joining the Bolsheviks and he was a key player in the October Revolution. He was made war commissar and in this role, he successfully built up and lead the Red Army; therefore playing an important part in the Bolshevik regime. Although Trotsky was skilled with theories and policies, he came across as arrogant and his wealthy, intellectual Jewish background could also have worked against him.
It has been argued that Trotsky was not interested in difficult power struggles as he believed that his ideas alone would win him the support of the people (Davis 2008). During Lenin’s illness, Zinoviev and Kamenev joined forces with Stalin against Trotsky, who lost the vote at the 1925 Party Conference and his job as Commissar for the War shortly afterwards. Soon after, tensions arose between Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin and by 1926, they, along with Trotsky had lost their jobs in the Politburo, the executive body of the Communist Party. Trotsky was driven from the Communist Party in 1927 and exiled from Russia in 1929; however, he continued to criticize Stalin and wrote books to this effect before he was murdered in 1940. Although no connection has been proven that Stalin ordered Trotsky’s murder, any opposition that Stalin faced was removed from political power, imprisoned or killed. Even after Trotsky’s exile, Stalin still did not have total control of the Bolshevik Party and the same people who helped him oust Trotsky were still his rivals. Although by this point he had the most power, he was not yet at the level he seemed to crave and he started to engineer the fall of important figures in the Communist Party; therefore, paving the way for him to eventually emerge with total control and power (Paley 1971).
Lenin was almost a godlike figure to the Bolsheviks for his vital role in initiating the October Revolution, his part in the success of the Party and successfully ruling the Civil War to name just a few. After Lenin’s death, Stalin somehow manipulated Trotsky’s absence at the funeral and the Russian people saw this as an insult to Lenin; therefore, his growing unpopularity was fuelled and his political reputation severely damaged. On the other hand, Stalin adopted the role as chief mourner and gave a speech in which he personally swore to continue the work of Lenin.
“In leaving us, Comrade Lenin commanded us to hold high and pure the great calling of party members. We swear to you, Comrade
Lenin, to honour your command. Before he left us, Comrade Lenin commanded us to keep the unity of out party above all else.
We swear to you, Comrade Lenin, to honour your command.” (Stalin 1924)
He used the funeral to his full advantage and set himself up as Lenin’s disciple, the person who would carry on his work. Lenin made it clear before he died that he did not want public adulation but despite objections from his widow, Lenin was embalmed, which Stalin approved of, if not decided and his tomb was turned into a shrine (Phillips 2000). Lenin memorabilia was produced from posters to matchboxes, statues were erected and Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. It has been said that Stalin constructed the ‘Cult of Lenin’ (Davis 2008) as a means to assist him in the leadership struggle.
It cannot be said for sure whether Stalin had his sights on the leadership role in the early 1920’s but his ruthless, calculating personality enabled him to manipulate situations and used every opportunity to his advantage (Davis 2008). The poor judgements and weaknesses of his opponents such as Trotsky helped Stalin to gain the support of the Communist Party. Having the power within his various job roles to find out information and ensure he had people in place who would support him was another important factor in his success. Stalin took every opportunity to take advantage of his opponents, their faults being that they trusted him too much or were not managing their own campaigns efficiently (Davis 2008). Despite not being the strongest contender as leader after Lenin’s death, his actions at this time gained him popularity. Stalin’s speech at Lenin’s funeral portraying himself as Lenin’s disciple and his vow to continue with Lenin’s legacy gained him further popularity. It would be fair to say that a mixture of clever political moves, opportunity and luck assisted Stalin’s rise to power, along with a wiliness to carry out the smallest of tasks to give himself more control, taking every chance possible to become more powerful.
Paley, A., (1971) Stalin The Iron-Fisted Dictator of Russia, New York: Story House Corp.
Davis, J., (2008) Stalin from Grey Blur to Great Terror, Oxfordshire: Hodder Education.
Phillips, S., (2000) Stalinist Russia, Oxford: Heinemann.
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/stalin.html. Last accessed 01 February 2010