Explain how Stalinism as Totalitarianism affected the Soviet Union between 1928-1945

During the 1920s, the Communist Party was not highly centralized nor disciplined in their organisation as a consequence of inadequate communication systems, inefficient record keeping, and regional party leaders who openly ignored orders from Moscow. A poor rail, road, radio, phone and mail network existed in the USSR made for inadequate links between regions, making quick decision-making processes virtually impossible and controls looser in practice. As such, totalitarianism in its strictest sense was near impossible in the USSR. However, despite technological, organizational and geographic limitations, Stalin’s regime came remarkable close to fulfilling the criteria of the totalitarian model.

Stalin’s totalitarian regime was essentially governed by an elaborate ideology applicable to all members of Soviet society. Stalinism was impressed upon Soviet life through intensified control and manipulation, with the ultimate objective of manufacturing statewide unity, conformity and social cohesion. This movement was facilitated by a sole political party whose membership was restricted to a minority of the population (only 2 million of Russia’s 30 million strong population), under the control of Stalin. This small, tight-knit ruling elite was infallibly loyal to Stalin’s regime.

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Another characteristic of Stalinism was the use of the Secret Police to impose his system through system terror. Stalin exerted near total direction over mass media and communication and imposed rigid censorship, though there were some underground groups who conducted clandestine meetings. Stalin also maintained near total command of the armed forced (air force, navy and police) and weaponry. Centralized control over the entire economy was achieved by directing labour where he deemed necessary, as opposed to letting natural market forces take hold.

The ‘personality cult’ of Stalin, which burst onto the public scene during his 50th Birthday celebrations, was re-iterated though a bombardment of images in popular culture media to the extent where his persona took on an almost quasi-religious theme. He became, symbolically, the ultimate source of inspiration, orthodoxy and authority.

Stalin was intent on returning the USSR to a more traditional, anti-internationalist socialism contingent on the notion of the ‘common good’. The individual was to be completely subsumed by service to the state. ‘Socialist realism’ infiltrated Soviet society by enforcing the virtues of happy, productive and utilitarianism in culture and entertainment to project the (facile) progress of communism. Writers, painters and other creative artists were stifled and made to support communist rhetoric. Composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev were instructed to write music directly accessible to masses while images of workers, planners and the compassionate facade of Stalin dominated iconography. Books published prior to this era were filled with portraits of party leaders covered over as they fell from favour. Arrests were followed by burnings. “In new apartment buildings, which had central heating instead of stoves, forbidden books, personal diaries, correspondence and other ‘subversive literature’ had to be cut into pieces with scissors and thrown down the toilet”. (Nadezhda Mandelstam).

Stalin’s policy of “making sure of everyone” was enacted through an intensive program to ‘indoctrinate’ young people. School children joined ‘Young Pioneers’ – the youngest branch of the CPSU. Increasingly, importance was placed on family values, motherhood and the leadership of the husband over the wife. Progressive moral standards promoted by Alexandra Kollontai in 1920 were replaced by conventional rigidity. This was typical of a totalitarian regime which was conservative in nature.

Education was also impacted on. By 1928 40,000 party schools and 19 party universities had evolved. The 1935 Education Law made classrooms and curriculum more disciplined. Report cards and test marks, which had been abolished during the 1920s, were re-introduced along with school uniforms. The numbers of students of working class origin at universities rose from 40,000 (1/4 of total student population) in 1928 to 290,000 (over 1/2) in 1932.The result was the near total disappearance of illiteracy. By 1939 of the 9-49 age bracket, 94% in towns and 86% in the countryside could read, arguably a positive feature of totalitarianism.

A new technical intelligentsia was created as thousands of working class members of CPSU mobilized to undertake short engineering courses, who became known as the ‘promoted ones’. Equal wages for men and women abolished. Shock brigades, industrial spies and Stakhanovites ensured work ethos became the dominant social philosophy. Stalinism also witnessed the emergence of a new social class – slave labour, which derived from the loss of status of kulaks, bourgeois technicians and purged party members. The introduction of collectivization and agriculture created new positions in administration and factories, which led to mass rural-urban migration. In 1929, the government introduced the ‘uninterrupted week’ to enable factories to remain operational seven days a week. Workers were given one rest day, though this was not the same for everyone, and as such husbands and wives shared infrequent family time. The abolishment of an ‘official Sunday’ restricted Church attendance. Absenteeism (more than one day’s absence without ‘good reason’) was punished with sackings and eviction from factory housing. This led to a high labour turnover rate as workers sought out more favourable working conditions. Internal Passports were introduced and regulated by the OGPU (secret police) as a countermeasure.

Religion was considered by Stalin to be incompatible with the objectives of communism. He claimed that there was no God, and that religion was merely to tool of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy. Marx had previously likened religion to ‘the opiate of the masses’ and advocated that people forget about promises offered by afterlife in order to concentrate on their present situation.

Under Stalin, church publications were closed down, buildings confiscated, priests disenfranchised and religious leaders exiled or imprisoned. The Union of Godless was established to preach atheism. These measures were later marginally relaxed, and many joined dissenting churches such as the Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists. By the close of the 1920s, peasants were far from relinquishing this so-called ‘superstition’, and the church actually swelled with unprecedented numbers. Stalin perceived this movement as a challenge to his supreme power. In 1929, the New Law of Religious Associations confined churches to services. The League of Militant Atheists visited the countryside, showing anti-religious films depicting nuns cohabiting with kulaks etc, and actively encouraged desecrating churches and abusing clergy.

Lenin had desired that non-Russian nations would remain part of the USSR by their own free will. During the 1920s, the non-Russian national elites had sided with the Bolsheviks, but wanted to proceed with integrating communism along their own national paths. However, according to Stalin, ‘great Russians knew best’. He wanted to maintain control over all nationalities. Colonialism was again revered as affording ‘backward people’ an advanced level of development, ie communism. Ethnic minorities with strong nationalistic tendencies, such as Ukrainians, were suppressed. The liquidation on national elites was achieved during Stalin’s purges and show trials. Under this policy of “Russification”, national ‘self-adulation’ was fostered through public manifestations of pride and loyalty towards Russia in the form of parades and the perpetuation of stereotypes and clich�s. Under this nationalism and patriotic frenzy, allegiances of case, locality and nationality were swept aside. The irony was that Stalin himself was Georgian.

The wealth of totalitarian measures undertaken by Stalin to stamp his control over Soviet society and project his ideal of ‘Soviet Realism’ dramatically affected all facets of Soviet life during 1928-1945 from culture, the arts, education, employment, family values, religion, and foreign policy towards non-nations. The centralized, coercive control of military and secret police under the instruction of Stalin’s ruling elite effectively created a society completely dominated by Stalin’s brand of socialist ideals.


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