The Great Terror began in 1934, fuelled by Stalin’s decision to murder Kirov, and finally wound down in 1939 – not before the authorisation of Trotsky’s murder (1940) who was at this time living in Mexico. The Great Terror was a period of paranoia and assassinations in Russia, where Stalin, through the use of imprisonment, murder and show trials, ruled with an Iron fist over Russia. Stalin’s personal insecurities and paranoia is known as a main cause of the Terror, but other influencing factors, like the power of the NKVD and economic pressures, also powered this era.
The argument that it was Stalin’s personal insecurities that drove The Terror is a traditionalist’s view of history. Stalin was increasingly worried about his power base at this time, threatened by the support of Kirov in the 17th party congress; Stalin instigated The Terror to allow him to remove his rivals. Using the purges and applying the use of show trials and forced confessions, Stalin condemned his political rivals such as Bukharin, Kamenev & Zinoviev to death. After The Terror few of the original Bolsheviks were left.
Robert Service, a respected author on this subject, can be cited to support the idea that Stalin’s character was the main cause of The Terror. The Terror began to climax after the death of Stalin’s wife by suicide in 1932 – Stalin and Nadezhda had had a strained relationship up to this point, and in her later years she had publically stood up to Stalin – some have even argued that the death was framed to look like a suicide, whether this was true or not, this did foreshadow a period of Stalin being indifferent to death.
Stalin could be argued as a man who believed that most problems could have a physical solution: “A man, problem; no man, no problem”. Stalin had no problem executing a 1,000 people as long as one of them was guilty. This is evidenced by comparing Stalin to the other previously potential leaders of communist Russia: although many party members were normalise to violence for the bloody revolution, many – like Bukharin – saw it as a necessary last option, Stalin however would use it as the only option.
This could have stemmed from his violent father, or the fact he came from Georgia – known for its brash and forceful culture – either way, it is un-doubtable that Stalin was not shy to use violence: “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” – a quote often attributed to Stalin. However there were other causes, one being the weight of economic problems in Russia. This is an incredibly important argument, which fits within the revisionist view of history, and stipulated that Russia had many economic problems in the early 1930s, in particular when it came to collectivisation.
Failure to reach targets set in the five year plans (although many of the quotas were set too high and optimistic to ever be realised) made Stalin hunt for a scape goat. Professor Edward Acton argues that it was these economic reasons that were the main driving force for The Terror. Stalin was under a lot of pressure from sceptical other nations and his recent power struggle to uphold good results and to consolidate his power. The Terror was used as a tool to add pressure on workers to be more productive as well as a device to explain away failure.
Stalin’s rapidly modernising Russia also needed a large amount of slave labour to construct new industrial areas quickly, this meant condemning thousands to the Gulags which kept the most valuable ‘resource’ – people – available to complete forced work in a fully expendable manner. Without the Gulag system it can be agreed that Stalin’s great achievements, like Magnitogorsk and the Belamor Canal, would not have been completed. Another cause which was incredibly influential was the fear of foreign threats in Russia, and the paranoia they fuelled.
During the 1920s there were many external threats from right-wing governments abroad: Fascist Italy, Franco in Spain, Nazi Germany building momentum in the 1930s and the Japanese empire growing. There was also a distinct threat from ‘capitalist nations’ like America and Britain, who had been notoriously sceptical of communism. This fear pushed Stalin to militarise, purge the party for spies and kept the Russian people loyal to Stalin – the belief that Stalin was acting to protect Russia from outside influenced allowed the Russian people to explain away Stalin’s merciless behaviour.
This fear went hand in hand with the social pressures within Russia, social upheaval experienced through forced collectivisation and industrialisation meant that the state found it harder to keep control of the public. Fearing that the masses may side with other nations or revolt, Stalin needed to set a firm example of control. A quick sand society had developed in Soviet Russia, where individuals could not easily be traced, led to the instigation of internal passports. General public paranoia also dwelled in Russia, the people feared the supposed threat of enemies from with.
It has been argued that Stalin needed to uphold an ‘iron fist’ (iron the material Stalin chose to base his name on) as the Russian people were used to living under an autocratic society and needed a leader they could look up to and respect. The final cause was the power of the NKVD and how The Terror snowballed. The NKVD’s role in society expanded greatly during the terror. The heads of this organisation wanted to protect and promotes its power, there were those in Russia who profited greatly from the business of killing – to many it was a lucrative job.
The purges seemed to almost take on a life of their own and gathered momentum: quotas of death being installed just as there were quotas for steel, iron and coal. This was perpetuated by local leaders’ need to kill people, without justification, just meet the quota’s demand. It was understood that failing to meet such targets was putting your own head on the block. Many Russian’s at the time believed that Stalin was unaware of this mass killing, that “if only Stalin knew” he’d do something to stop it, however this could not be the case due to Stalin’s name appearing on over 600,000 death warrants.
I personally do not agree with the NKVD being a cause of the terror due to the secret police being a tool of Stalin’s to maintain power, Stalin was definitely a megalomaniac and wanted absolute power – this is evidenced by Stalin culling the first head of the NKVD, Yagoda, and then again later into The Terror, replacing Yezhov with Beria. To conclude was the most influencing factor I would have to argue that it was Stalin’s personal character that led to The Great Terror, but was definitely fuelled by foreign threats and economic pressures.
This is a hybrid theory of historical analysis, and was common within the 1990s. This is because it was Stalin’s totalitarian rule and distinct paranoia of his fellow party members which tipped the scales towards The Great Terror, not to forget that it was Stalin’s own signature that appeared on over 600,000 death warrants. Unlike other dictators, like Hitler who had different autonomous factions working under him all vying to earn his approval, Stalin wanted complete control over Russia. He kept involved in all aspect of governing Russia and undercut officials who looked like they were able to sway public opinion.
However economic problems also had its influence on the cause of The Terror, they fed into Stalin’s paranoia and need to look successful. Failure within the 5 Year Plans would have opened Stalin up to criticisms from other nations, with paranoia from other strong competing countries which had previously considered Russia as a backwards peasant nation on his heels, Stalin needed to project the image of success; The Terror was a means of scapegoating millions for the lack of productivity and created thousands of expendable workers from the Gulags.
In summary, Stalin’s personal insecurities were the main cause of The Terror. Without Stalin at the helm The Great Terror would never had happened, however social pressures, the economy and foreign all fuelled Stalin’s need to motivate Russia – in which he reacted in the way most close to his nature: violence, fear and control.